Rhapsody Streamnotes: November 9, 2011

Three of the A- albums below were high B+ on my first Rhapsody play, but got an extra kick after I picked up CDs and gave them a lot more play: Emperor X, Mayer Hawthorne, and Miranda Lambert. The former depends a lot on whim, but once you start leaning that way you figure why not? Hawthorne also depends on buying into the concept, but from the start seemed like the most likely album to move up. The Lambert album is a lot more troublesome: five or six real good songs -- "Mama's Broken Heart" (another one she didn't write) emerged as my favorite, but her own "Fastest Girl in Town" also kicked in -- plus some stuff I have doubts about, with the Blake Shelton duet the most annoying. I'm closing in on 100 A-list albums already this year -- last year closed out at 132, up from 112 in 2009 and 101 in 2008 -- and so many of them are so borderline I'm starting to think I'm slipping or softening up. Maybe I should go back and thin the list a bit?

I continue to shag after Christgau's Expert Witness and Tatum's Downloader's Diary (and, increasingly, Jason Gubbels' Cerebral Decanting) -- they're the best intelligence sources I've found, although I've been much more dilligent than usual at monitoring everything else. At lot of their picks show up below -- less than usual from Tatum since I only bothered with 5 (of 22) from this month's all trash list. Some rubbish follows, but as a rule I don't go looking for it.

Given my three promotions above, I have to wonder whether any of the 12 high B+ records below would have made the grade given more than my usual limited exposure. B-52s, the old Comet Gain, Deer Tick, and Jeffrey Lewis did for Christgau; Clams Casino (and Wilco at a notch below) for for Tatum and Gubbels; DaVinci and the new Comet Gain for Gubbels only. I have my reasons for each, which isn't to say I couldn't get comfortable with Wilco or Deer Tick if I felt like making the investment. On the other hand, I find Rod Picott and Sims more interesting, even given their limitations.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on October 5. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Alias: Fever Dream (2011, Anticon): Brendon Whitney, has been producing left-field hip-hop albums since 1999, including at least five on Anticon. No real rapping here, just some vocal sounds tucked in between the synth beats, the first few especially engaging (cf. "Goinswimmin"). B+(**)

The Belle Brigade: The Belle Brigade (2011, Reprise): L.A. sibling duo, Barbara and Ethan Gruska, from one of those "musical families," in their case including John Williams and a connection to Raymond Scott. Attractive mix at first, acoustic but pop (folkie pop?), both sing (and well together), but it does wear thin, especially when they grab and cliché and amp it up -- "Rusted Wheel" is probably the worst. B+(*)

The B-52s: With the Wild Crowd! (2011, Eagle): Live at the Classic Center in their home stomping ground of Athens, GA. The only time I ever saw them live was at Max's Kansas City when they opened for Nervus Rex (who?), who unlike them had an LP just out -- all the B-52s had was their "Lobster Rock" single, which was enough for an underground rep. I remember sitting at one of the long tables near the back, then turning around and recognizing Cindy Wilson right across the table, studying the headliners much more intently than they deserved. They worked hard to make a go of it, and as their 2008 Funplex showed they're capable of rekindling their fire. Here too, plus they get to recycle their best songs. No doubt this was a great concert, but the record seems a bit superfluous. Must say, though, I doubt that "Rock Lobster" has ever sounded better -- certainly never bigger -- even on that first single. B+(***)

Scott H. Biram: Bad Ingredients (2011, Bloodshot): Singer-songwriter, has cranked out four albums on my favorite cowpunk label, so I should have noticed him before. Guitar has a lot of blues overhang, loud enough he'd have to tone it down to go into heavy metal. Songs are brutal, too: not just the subject matter -- although "Born in Jail" and "Broke Ass" and "Black Creek Risin'" and "Killed a Chicken Last Night" qualify -- but melodically you can cut yourself on the broken shards. Should look into him more, but if he's this crude four albums out, I can't imagine how rough he must have started. B+(***)

Björk: Biophilia (2011, One Little Indian): I don't begin to understand the packaging concepts here, but if (as some reports suggest) it's only usable tied into various Apple iProducts, it's even more useless than my grade reflects. What I have to go on is the audio -- 13 tracks in Rhapsody's version, as few as 10 elsewhere. Some stuff sounds promising, especially where the rhythm fractures in dense electronics, but the whining over drones that she is also prone to wears thin fast. B-

James Blake: Enough Thunder (2011, Atlas, EP): Young English electronica producer, got a lot of attention for a series of EPs last year, and now his eponymous debut album sits in 5th place in my metacritic list -- one I only remember now as not being much of anything. Back quick with a 6-cut, 25:33 EP. Not much beat, sometimes the electronics give way to simple piano, so not much there either. That leaves his voice, which is turning into one of the most irritating in semipopular music. C

The Bloody Hollies: Yours Until the Bitter End (2011, Alive): Buffalo band transplanted to San Diego, fourth album since 2003, AMG classifies them as garage revival. More punk than garage, but more tuneful than punk -- I flashed on the Del-Lords for a while for sound but not songcraft. Ends with a nice change of pace, recounting the life and death of "John Wayne Brown." B+(*)

The Cambodian Space Project: 2011: A Space Odyssey (2011, Metal Postcard): Cambodian singer Srey Thy, picked up by Tasmanian Julien Poulson in a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh, seeding this Cambodian-Australian-French psychedelic rock group, the sort of thing Sublime Frequencies scours old radio tapes for, but with a cleaner sound, exotic only in the Khmer lyrics. Fitting that a country best known for its ruins even before the US, the Vietnamese, and Pol Pot conspired to wipe it from the face of the earth should have no folk music -- just an amusingly off-kilter mash of Lenny Kaye-worthy artyfacts. B+(***)

Clams Casino: Instrumentals (2011, mixtape): Some voices here, but nothing you'd call vocals. Beats clamber along, stomping hard with lots of reverb trying to compensate for their lack of velocity. B+(***) [dl]

Class Actress: Rapprocher (2011, Carpark): Singer Elizabeth Harper, not sure who or what else. Had a 6-song, 26:52 EP last year (Journal of Ardency), run full-length here. Mostly synths, clashing in patterns that ultimately prove danceable. Gave this the unfair advantage of a third spin, at which point it finally all meshed. A-

J. Cole: Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011, Roc Nation/Columbia): Rapper, officially his debut album but AMG lists three more -- that's what happens in the mixtape minor leagues these days. Flows reasonably well, nothing much sticking when he's done, other than the sense that he's all right. B+(**)

Comet Gain: City Fallen Leaves (2005, Kill Rock Stars): British group, cut their first in 1995 and are up to eight with their new Howl of the Lonely Crowd. Checked this out after I found myself uncertain about their new one and found it better written, more tuneful, with an extra voice I hadn't noticed elsewhere. B+(***)

Comet Gain: Howl of the Lonely Crowd (2011, What's Your Rupture?): Eighth album, first since 2005, feels like they wound up forcing this, going back to primal instincts, by which I mostly mean punk. B+(**)

Jonny Corndawg: Down on the Bikini Line (2011, Nasty Memories, EP): From Brooklyn, or so I hear -- not much info online that I can find. Christgau described this as "filthy and whimsical" -- some truth to that, but I can't say as I caught much of it beyond his friendly drawl. Six songs, 17:18, goes by fast. B+(**)

Crooked Fingers: Breaks in the Armor (2011, Merge): Eric Bachmann's post-Archers of Loaf outfit, active since 1999 without ever making much of splash. Mostly skeletal singer-songwriter fare, and better that way than on the occasions when he lets the band loose to fill something out. B+(**)

DaVinci: Feast or Famine (2011, SWTBRDS, EP): Frisco rapper, affinity group Sweetbreads Creative Collective, has a previous album. At eight cuts, 28:36, this doesn't feel skimpy, but maybe a bit sketchy. Sharp when he works at it. Noted one line -- "voted for change but my change didn't come" -- he could build on. B+(***)

Kimya Dawson: Thunder Thighs (2011, Great Crap Factory): Middle-aged anti-folker, at one point admits she didn't expect to live to 25 but now she's 37 and glad to be alive. As offhanded as ever, hitting good lines -- "because water is fluid and oil is crude" is one -- as often as not, and singing more about urine than would be my druther. B+(**)

Deer Tick: Divine Providence (2011, Partisan): Rhode Island group, basically a vehicle for John McCauley, who's developed a drawl and a flair for Americana. Fourth album, like Born on Flag Day a Christgau pick I admire but can't much get into -- maybe just takes more time than I'm willing to spend. Mix of fast and slow ones. Probably a good sign that the latter resonate more. B+(***)

Dels: Gob (2011, Big Dada): Kieren Dickins, British rapper/graphic artist/video producer, first album, has some urban stories and beats of interest. B+(**)

The Dirt Drifters: This Is My Blood (2011, Warner Brothers): The business cards say Nashville, but "Always a Reason" could hardly sound more like Springsteen's deepest Americana rock. Granted, these guys lack Springsteen's overinflated grandeur -- the full line "there's always a reason to drink around here," and another fully Springsteenian tune runs "nothing good's ever come from married men and motel rooms." They could be goofing, and they can get cute, as with their Willie Nelson sample in "I'll Shut Up Now" -- I'm reminded of those Dexter Gordon quotes which are wrong in theory and wrong in practice but are so recognizable you wind up looking forward to anyway. And just as they settle for recycling riffs they settle for ordinary philosophy, like "there ain't nothing wrong with feeling alright." Indeed. A-

DJ Shadow: The Less You Know, the Better (2011, Verve): Josh Davis, produced two masterpieces out of the box, not much since. Technique is to paste together found sounds, so all depends on his ear and his interest in the human condition -- rather scattered by this evidence, but his ear keeps returning to his past glories, including a self-sampled closer that's good to hear again. B+(**)

Electric Six: Heartbeats and Brainwaves! (2011, Metropolis): Detroit sextet, liked at the time but have since forgotten their 2003 debut (Fire), paying scant attention to them ever since. This is their eighth. Rocks hard enough, reminds me a bit of Alice Cooper, but not in any particularly appealing way. Cover capitalizes "AND" as if they're surprised that one can possess both. B-

Robert Ellis: Photographs (2011, New West): Country-ish singer-songwriter from Houston, second album, reminds me a little bit of Guy Clark, except that he doesn't have any great songs, and his domestic manners leave something to be desired. Stronger on the homestretch. B+(*)

Emperor X: Western Teleport (2011, Bar/None): Alias for Chad Matheny, who cut an album as far back as 1998 and a handful since then, getting classified by AMG as electronica for no reason evident here. Well, maybe tape mischief counts, the occasional odd sound effect, and an occasional fondness for volume, all of which separates his low tech guitar + voice from cheapo folk. The words are another story. A-

Evidence: Cats & Dogs (2011, Rhymesayers Entertainment): Michael Perretta, formerly one-third of Dilated Peoples, which had a run of underground hip-hop albums from 2000-07. Seems to be more producer than MC, with two previous instrumental albums, and this and a previous LP larded with guests (although also credited with a dozen other producers). The cats & dogs theme runs thin, but "It Wasn't Me" makes canny use of evidence, and KRS-One gets a nod. B+(**)

Feist: Metals (2011, Cherrytree/Interscope): Marginally interesting singer from Canada, fourth studio album -- the one from 1999 didn't get noticed, but Let It Die in 2004 did, and she's a star of some magnitude now. Appreciate her interest in letting the metals crash and fly apart, but can't get any traction on her ballads, some running on little more than her voice. B

Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside: Dirty Radio (2011, Partisan): Portland group, has a previous EP. Ford has a distinctive voice and the band tends to wander idiosyncratically. No real idea what they're up to. B+(*)

Ruth Gerson: Deceived (2011, Wrong): Princeton alum, studied "Jewish existentialism" and graduated summa cum laude, then threw all that education to the wind to become a peripatetic folk singer. Haven't heard her four (or six) other albums: I'd guess she writes but I recognize a lot of dovers here, grim country fare like "Down From Dover," "Delia's Gone," and "Ode to Billie Joe." Plainly done, they feel like the way of the world. B+(**)

Vince Gill: Guitar Slinger (2011, MCA Nashville): Yesterday's boring mid-level country matinee idol, had his heyday in the early 1990s and slowed down in the new century with only two other records in the past decade, the amusingly-titled Next Big Thing and the 43-song These Days (stretched out to 4CD). This time he comes out burning on the title cut, then gears down for some ballads. Gets a bit mawky in the middle with the Amy Grant duet "True Love," but trades the strings for pedal steel after that and turns out a series of strong songs, not that I approve of having to wait until heaven to get "Bread and Water." B+(**)

Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: Nobody Will Be There (2007 [2011], Damaged Goods, EP): Was looking for a new one called No Help Coming but found this instead, so figured why not? British rocker, dropped the terminal Smith from her name, edging that much closer to Truman Capote's heroine. Started in Thee Headcoats, Has great bunches of albums since striking out on her own in 1995 -- Wikipedia lists 20 (AMG is on the blink right now). The Brokeoffs seems to be her country move, and this started life as a bootleg. Ten songs, but only 29:25, trends dark ("Dark in My Heart," "Jesus Don't Love Me," a really moribund "Whoopie Ti Yi Yo"). B+(*)

David Guetta: Nothing but the Beat (2011, Capitol): French DJ/house music producer/remixer. AMG lists eighteen "main albums" since 2002, but the majority of them are remixes of Fuck Me I'm Famous, which seems to be most of what he's famous for. This got horrible reviews (Metacritic: 57) but since when have I been able to resist a big beat with a chintzy hook? B+(*)

Merle Haggard: Working in Tennessee (2011, Vanguard): Saw him live recently and first heard the title song there -- one of two in the set I didn't recognize, but it's so upbeat it fit right in. He's come up with a few more songs that don't let you down, and threw in some far-from-obscure covers -- things he wouldn't have done in the old days, but even with his reduced lung power he has the authority to get away with now. "Jackson" and "Cocaine Blues" resurrect Johnny Cash as no one else could, and adding Willie Nelson to "Working Man Blues" more than justifies the recycling. A-

Mayer Hawthorne: How Do You Do (2011, Universal Republic): Andrew Cohen, a milquetoast white guy from Ann Arbor who's been working hard on his Eddie Kendricks intonation. Cut a record two years ago for Stones Throw which was likably eccentric, but this time he hits his target so consistently you might think he's due for some backlash. Or you might just think back on how great the Temptations were, and wonder why nobody (else) makes records like that these days. Part of the reason is that he can't resist punching up the lyrics. A- [cd]

I Break Horses: Hearts (2011, Bella Union): Swedish synth duo, approaching shoegaze in terms of velocity and anomie. B

Justice: Audio, Video, Disco (2011, Elektra): Duo from Paris, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay. Previous, probably eponymous album was universally identified as Cross since that was all there was on the cover. The wordless cover this time features a bigger and bulkier cross, but sources agree that this one has a title. This ups the pop ambitions, ups the bubbly synths, ups the vocals, drives me up the wall. C+

Toby Keith: Clancy's Tavern (2011, Show Dog Nashville): Nashville giant, been a country music machine since 1993, including some of the most shamelessly belligerent right-wing crap to come down the the pike. Still, nothing here I'd be embarrassed to play in public; mostly drinking songs, and now that he's getting on he's mellowing out a bit, which suits his vocal chops and his tendency to muscle up the guitar. Signature line: "Don't expect too much from me/and I won't let you down." B+(*)

Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers: Gift Horse (2011, Vanguard): Massachusetts band, led by a singer-songwriter who channels Americana for its clarity and lack of pretension. B+(**)

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis: Smoking in Heaven (2011, Verve Forecast): Three British siblings, were mostly teens on their first album (2008) and not that much older now (regardless of all the smoking on the cover). They draw on rockabilly and ska, keep it upbeat and unburdened even when indulging in a blues. B+(**)

Ladytron: Gravity the Seducer (2011, Nettwerk): Synthpop group from Liverpool, been around since 2000, has a nice, consistent bag of tricks which if anything works better on a long instrumental vamp (like the middle of "Ritual") than when Mira Aroyo or Helen Marnie or whoever tries to sing. B+(*)

Miranda Lambert: Four the Record (2011, RCA Nashville): Title on two lines: sometimes I parse an implicit colon between the lines, and that would work better here than to dwell on the pun. She didn't waste her best songs on Pistol Annies, but she didn't write the best ones here either: this peaks in the middle with "Same Old You" and "Baggage Claim," and most of the others I notice were picked out from the Nashville assembly line. Only one that rubbed me wrong was "Better in the Long Run" -- a pledge of allegiance where she used to assert her independence, joined by one of those husky Nashville muscle voices (probably husband Blake Shelton -- how long do you think that'll last?). She's past making her mark as a kerosene-fueled outside threat. She's a pro now, less interesting for that, but she earned the rank by making a difference, and she still sounds pretty different. A- [cd]

Jeffrey Lewis: A Turn in the Dream-Songs (2011, Rough Trade): Started out as a cartoonist, turned to anti-folk music -- folk because the songs are low tech and talky and anti- because they cut against the grain. Could be funnier, although the suicide song is pretty wicked, and could be more themeful, although maybe I'm just slow on the uptake. B+(***)

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (2011, Egyptian/Columbia): A dozen notebook lyrics, reportedly authentic, close enough for sure, set to the sort of music Williams would have knocked out easily, sung (or talked) by thirteen more/less country notables, seeking more to create a canon than to take liberties with it. B+(**)

Shelby Lynne: Revelation Road (2011, Everso): Started out as a fiddle-playing country singer, but this is mostly guitar, and her songs have become so stripped down there is little else to embellish it here. Even tempered, fully in control, a bit difficult to decipher. B+(*)

Martina McBride: Eleven (2011, Universal Republic): Nashville singer, from the dust bowl in southwest Kansas, eleventh album since 1992 (not counting a couple of Xmas efforts, which I'd hope to forget too). Usual Nashville overkill, which matters less when the songs hold up. The cancer song, "I'm Gonna Love You Through It," is one Newt Gingrich should study. The one about "Teenage Daughters" is just wise enough. B+(*)

Lori McKenna: Lorraine (2011, Signature Sounds): AMG classifies her as folk, probably because she doesn't have the taste for glitz that defines the other side of Nashville -- maybe because she hails from and still lives in Massachusetts. Sixth studio album since 2000, in her 40s now, has an eye for detail and can spin a melody, but doesn't stretch her talent enough here to turn my head. B+(*)

Murs: Love + Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation (2011, DD172): Nick Carter, first noticed his 2003 album, treats his fame with some distance, just meaning to keep his rhymes tight, and going with the flow. A gay intolerance saga ends badly; so does a run in with the cops with sums up the accidental gangsta genre. One moment I'm with him; the next, one of us is lost. B+(*)

Rod Picott: Welding Burns (2011, Welding Rod): A former construction worker from Maine, busked around Boulder before sojourning to Nashville, where he's quietly released at least five albums since 2001 -- the first named for a relative who boxed his way through the Depression. Songs about work have a lived in feel, especially the one about hanging sheetrock -- doesn't have the attitude of Todd Snider's sheetrock song, but has the core skill set. B+(***)

Real Estate: Days (2011, Domino): New Jersey group, second album after eponymous debut in 2009. Guitar group, with a lazy soft strummed sound, sweet harmony vocals, the sort of pleasant suburban pastorale that used to give Los Angeles a bad name. B

Rivulets: We're Fucked (2011, Important): Alias for singer-songwriter Nathan Admundson, has a lonesome voice on bleak, isolated songs, occasionally struck by dense storms of experimental noise. B+(*)

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle: We Still Love Our Country (2011, Ninth Street Opus, EP): First noticed Rodriguez attached to a duet album with Chip Taylor, but she has more of a work ethic, so she's knocked out solos and now come up with a new duet partner. Kyle cut a couple albums with a Minneapolis group called Romantica, including the memorably titled Zwischen Liebe und Stolz. Eight songs here, a little slim for an album these days at 29:31. Mostly covers, a bit too well worn to get excited about. B+(*)

Roots Manuva: 4everevolution (2011, Big Dada): British rapper, ordinary name Rodney Smith, eighth record in over a decade. Forgot I had forgotten to forget about him, and probably won't remember this one either. B

Scroobius Pip: Distraction Pieces (2011, Speech Development): David Meads, the English rapper who teamed with Dan le Sac for two of the sharpest grime records of recent years, goes his own way, or at least captures the top of the masthead. Not sure who does the beats here, but with words this cutting even received concepts work -- especially ones that remind one of the Sex Pistols, then Public Enemy. A-

Sims: Bad Time Zoo (2011, Doomtree): Andrew Sims, rapper from the suburbs of Minneapolis, seeks "solid understanding in a society on the brink of dystopia" -- what the world's come to, I'm afraid, a far cry from my generation, the first (and evidently last) to stand accused of being too utopian. Smart guy, good beats, makes his points. B+(***)

Watermelon Slim/Super Chikan: Okiesippi Blues (2011, Northern Blues Music): Bill Homans, born in Boston, raised in North Carolina, turned to music after a 1970 tour in Vietnam, spent most of his adult life driving trucks and picking up degrees -- one in history from Oklahoma State, another in journalism from University of Oregon. Cut an antiwar album in 1973 as Merry Airbrakes, then picked up his music again after a heart attack, appearing as Watermelon Slim in 2003, with an album every couple years ever since. He must be the Okie here, because Super Chikan (James Louis Johnson) hails from Mississippi, has half a dozen albums in his own right. Blues are pretty gutbucket in tone, with muggers and cops and the health care system all culpable, but not even the singalong sounds quite so primitive as the "Diddley-Bo Jam" -- well, maybe the mbira, or whatever that is. B+(***)

Wilco: The Whole Love (2011, Anti-): Important band, eighth studio album since 1995, smart enough to pick up one of the most imposing jazz guitarists of the last 20 years even though they're not really much of a guitar band -- but does explain occasional dazzle. I never find them especially annoying (unlike, say, R.E.M.), but also find that I don't much care, and don't expect I ever will. Did notice one song reminded me of post-Beatles McCartney -- not as unpleasant as you'd think. So, in a way, does the gingerly cute "Whole Love." If I did care, I'd concede that there's more than usual to sort out here. Not sure how to handle the "Deluxe Edition": sure got my attention with a cover of Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label," and one other song caught my fancy, but there's only four songs on the disc. B+(**)


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • The Field: Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
  • Future Islands: On the Water (Thrill Jockey)
  • Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: No Help Coming (Transdreamer)
  • La Big Vic: Actually (Underwater Peoples)
  • Open Mike Eagle: Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes (Hellfyre Club/Alpha Pup)
  • Arrica Rose and the . . . s: Let Alone Sea (pOprOck)
  • These Trails: These Trails (1973, Drag City)

Also, from way back:

  • Martial Solal: At Newport '63 (1963, RCA)
  • Weather Report: 8:30 (1979, Columbia)

Revised Grades

Sometimes further listening leads me to change an initial grade, usually either because I move on to a real copy, or because someone else's review or list makes me want to check it again:

Shelby Lynne: Tears, Lies and Alibis (2010, Everso): Realize now I was swept away by the one truly exceptional song here ("Family Tree"). [was: A-] B+(***)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Chet Baker: Chet Is Back! (1962 [2003], RCA): Cut in Italy with a European band including guitarist René Thomas and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar. The eight standards are a bit more upbeat, engaged even, than cool, a fine vocal-less trumpet showcase. The album was reissued unchanged as The Italian Sessions in 1996, but the 2003 reissue adds Ennio Morricone soundtrack schmaltz with strings and vocals, a dull ending. B

The George Benson Quartet: It's Uptown (1966, Columbia): No jazz artist ever arrived with more hype. His first album was titled The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, and the cover on this one (his second) proclaims, in red type as large as the green title, "The Most Exciting New Guitarist on the Jazz Scene Today." A few years before John McLaughlin, not to mention Jimi Hendrix (and let's throw in Sonny Sharrock), his claim rested on nothing more than splitting the distance between Wes Montgomery and Grant Green (although "Bullfight" suggests a passing interest in Bo Diddley). Still, he's never been framed better, with Lonnie Smith's organ breathing funk, and Ronnie Cuber's baritone sax well on the ugly side. And while he sings on three cuts, they're vintage jazz standards and not without interest (e.g., "A Foggy Day"). Too bad this was his career peak. B+(***)

Art Blakey: The Jazz Messengers (1956 [1997], Columbia/Legacy): In the beginning, with Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, and Doug Watkins -- looks like the bonus cuts which double the length substitute freely. Mobley wrote the most cuts, Silver chipped in and gives the hard bop a little extra swing, Byrd shows his early promise. A-

Clifford Brown: The Beginning and the End (1952-56 [1973], Columbia): Trumpet player, dead in a car crash at age 25 after a four-year run that rivals any debut in jazz history. The two cuts with Jamaican singer Chris Powell make little use of Brown and would be long forgotten but for the title concept. The rest -- 3 tracks, 29:53 of the total 34:22 -- were captured live the day before the crash, and are little short of sensational. B+(***)

Dave Brubeck: Jazz Goes to College (1954, Columbia): Live cuts from a tour of midwestern colleges, following the previous year's breakthrough Jazz at Oberlin, this one just a bit more scattered. Paul Desmond gets his picture (but not his name) on the cover, and plays his usual pivotal role. B+(***)

Stanley Clarke: School Days (1976, Epic): Bassist, can play the bull fiddle but prefers bass guitar, especially here where he's looking for crossover funk. He has guitars and keybs at his disposal, plus a brass section and a string section and a short list of drummers that includes Billy Cobham, but doesn't make much use of any of them, so no matter what else is happening you hear the bass fuzz first. C+

Marilyn Crispell: Pianosolo -- A Concert in Berlin (1983 [1984], FMP): Avant-pianist, early in her career, attacks the piano boldly, with thick, resonant chords and choppy melodic runs. B+(**) [bc]

Marilyn Crispell & Irène Schweizer: Overlapping Hands: Eight Segments (1990, FMP): Two major avant-garde pianists, improvising with, around, and against each other, full of dazzling runs and occasional wrecks; definitely, life in the fast lane. B+(***) [bc]

Paul Desmond: Desmond Blue (1961-62 [2002], RCA): One of those "sax with strings" albums, where the strings are so dull and uninteresting at first you try to tune them out and focus on the alto sax, then eventually they fade so completely into the background they cease to annoy. Meanwhile, Desmond just gets more and more gorgeous, as he's wont to do. The 2002 reissue adds a lot of alternate takes: on the plus side they let the whole effect settle in; on the other hand, you wonder if they'll ever end. B+(**)

Bill Dixon: Berlin Abbozzi (1999 [2000], FMP): Ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, the avant-trumpeter pokes his way through the fog created by two bassists (Matthias Bauer and Klaus Koch) and drummer Tony Oxley; three long pieces -- the middle "Open Quiet/The Orange Bell" running 40:14 -- exhibit no great hurry; rather, an atmospheric tension ominous enough to rivet your attention but pregnant with sensual wonder. A- [bc]

Duke Ellington and Count Basie: First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961 [2009], Columbia/Legacy): Two full bore big bands, Basie's in its early post-atomic phase, Ellington's during a short period when he made a habit of collaborating with everyone from Armstrong to Coltrane. Four songs from each songbook, more show-and-tell than cutting, with everyone sharp, alive, swinging. B+(***)

Stan Getz: The Best of Two Worlds (1975, Columbia): Title continues: "featuring João Gilberto" -- a return to the very popular bossa nova albums Getz cut with Gilberto in 1964, with Heliosa Buarque de Hollanda filling in for Gilberto's estranged wife. Strikes me as not all that well thought out: more Gilberto than Getz, but not enough for either to own it. B

The Benny Goodman Quartet: Together Again! (1963 [1964], RCA): With Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa, each a major star after playing with Goodman in the late 1930s, but only Hampton is fully up to snuff at this late date -- not that the clarinetist has lost his touch. Starts off with a piece from Charlie Christian, another Goodman alumnus long gone. B+(**)

Dexter Gordon: Round Midnight [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1986, Columbia): A low budget arty movie about the jazz life, based loosely on Francis Paudras' memoirs of a down-and-out Bud Powell in Paris, the lead reconceived as a tenor saxophonist, played by real life sax giant Dexter Gordon in a performance so nonchalant you're tempted to believe it's his own story. Says something about popular culture's pecking order of fame that so many major jazz stars could be assembled for so little money. (Herbie Hancock's small role is especially memorable, again because it so perfectly fits type.) Soundtracks are normally mere byproducts of the film industry, but this one promised to lure in people who don't normally trust their taste in jazz. Still, those who did dive in found themselves in a mess: only 5 of 11 tracks feature Gordon, who in the film only pulls himself together when blowing into his horn. The rest is atmosphere -- unless you're into starspotting best mulling away in the background. B+(*)

Georg Gräwe Quintet: Pink Pong (1977, FMP): An early, little noted album by the German pianist as he was finding his way to rhythmic freedom, punctuated by scattered trumpet and soprano/tenor sax (Horst Grabosch and Harald Dau, two names I don't recall running into elsewhere). B+(*) [bc]

Gumpert Sommer Duo Plus Manfred Herring: The Old Song (1973 [1974], FMP): Pianist Ulrich Gumpert and drummer Günter Sommer, who continued to work as a duo throughout the decade, add Herring's alto sax to the mayhem here; Herring's in high screech mode, while the principals do a rousing job of smashing things up; could have degenerated into noise, but builds something out of every lurch and crash. B+(***) [bc]

Ulrich Gumpert & Gunter 'Baby' Sommer: . . . Jetzt Geht's Kloß (1978 [1979], FMP): The Gumpert Sommer (piano-drums) Duo on their own doing what comes naturally: the pianist pulling all sorts of striking melodic fragments out of the aether, fast and hard-edged, with the drums accenting their inherent percusiveness; two long improvs, only thinning out a bit well into the second. B+(***) [bc]

Ulrich Gumpert/Günter Sommer: Versäuminisse (1979 [1980], FMP): Piano-drums duo, something the label liked to crank up and smash together, in this case drawing on a pair with nearly a decade's experience of doing just that. B+(**) [bc]

Herbie Hancock: Thrust (1974, Columbia): Never any doubt about his talent, nor his nose for what sells, which following Miles Davis's fusion breakthrough meant electric keybs pounding out tight funk rhythms. Headhunters was his big break, and this just pushes the formula further, its redeeming merit that he was cranking them out tighter than anyone else. B+(**)

Peter Kowald Quintet (1972 [1973], FMP): German avant-bassist in one of his first albums, deploys an alto sax (Peter van de Locht) for some screech and two trombones (Günter Christmann and Paul Rutherford) to keep it dirty. They create a Godawful racket at first, then tone it down without sacrificing the tension. B+(*) [bc]

Helen Merrill: Parole e Musica (1960, RCA [Italy]): Eleven sterling standards, at once authoritative and seductive even on songs you've heard everyone else do. Cut in Rome with a couple local groups delighted to back the visiting star, with a spoken intro before each track, translating the lyrics into Italian. For me that doesn't add to the allure, but I can see where it might. B+(**) [dl]

Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker: Carnegie Hall Concert (1974, CTI): Their co-led "pianoless quartet" was important in establishing the cool jazz mystique in the 1950s, but their big reunion concert is mellowed out almost to the point of stasis, albeit a rather pretty one. And this being a CTI joint, the band is expanded, with Bob James electric piano, John Scofield guitar, and Dave Samuels vibes. The discography here is confusing: as best I can tell, the original was a 2-LP set, later split into two volumes, then recombined on a single 77:46 CD, sometimes as Volume 1 & 2, and I've seen it variously with black, blue, or orange covers, filed under either name. B

Charlie Parker: Bird [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1945-88, Columbia): Produced by Lenny Niehaus for Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic, extracting Parker leads from the 1940s (but also note alto sax credits for Donald Harrison and Charles McPherson), cleaning them up, mixing them with contemporary musicians -- Ray Brown and Ron Carter on bass, Barry Harris and David Hazeltine on piano, John Guerin and Tony Reedus on drums, Red Rodney as himself, and who else but Jon Faddis as Dizzy Gillespie? -- and dubbing in crowd noise where the plot called for it. Requires some suspension of disbelief, as did the movie -- which was worth it, and within which this simulacrum of history was essential. If I revered Bird I might get upset, but this gives you the basic idea about as pleasantly as possible. B+(*)

Hans Reichel/Achim Knipsel: Erdmännchen (1977, FMP): Two meerkats on the cover, translating the title; two electric guitarists, playing without pedals or effects or overdubs or whatever, a point made because they're making sounds you don't expect, their interaction a see-saw rhythm the individual sounds bounce off from. A- [bc]

Return to Forever: Romantic Warrior (1976 [1991], Columbia): Chick Corea's florid fusion group, which started as the title of a pretty good album (with Flora Purim, Joe Farrell, Stanley Clarke, and Airto Moreira) and evolved through several changes to this quartet with Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Lenny White, until its demise shortly after. Lots of Spanish tinge with this crew, but it's layered over mock classical schmaltz, so much so that the main group they remind me of is ELP. C+

Sonny Rollins: Sonny Meets Hawk! (1963 [2002], RCA Victor): One of two tenor sax matches in Rollins' long discography, and a more interesting one than his bout with John Coltrane on Tenor Madness. Rollins is out to impress Coleman Hawkins, often by playing around him, although Hawkins is focused in the game, even when the rhythm floats free. Last three cuts add Don Cherry and move even further out. A-

Wayne Shorter: Native Dancer (1974 [1991], Columbia/Legacy): From 1959-70 Shorter released a ton of work under his own name while starring in Art Blakey's and Miles Davis's most legendary groups. Between 1970 and 1985 he was preoccupied with Weather Report and limited himself to this one Brazilian-themed release. Milton Nascimento croons, Airto Moreira nudges the rhythm along, Herbie Hancock slums, the saxophonist occasionally rises above it all, but more often toys with his soprano. B-

Sarah Vaughan: In Hi-Fi (1949-53 [1997], Columbia/Legacy): Mostly 1950 recordings with a jazz group including Miles Davis, Tony Scott, Benny Green, and Budd Johnson, a big improvement over the orchestral dreck Columbia usually favored (can we blame that on Mitch Miller?). Originally collected in 1955, and padded out in the reissue with alternates to 21 tracks. Not her best timing or intonation, but she hits most of the standards distinctively. B+(*)

Weather Report: Heavy Weather (1977, Columbia): The title seems so inevitable you wonder it took them eight albums to get to it, and why they slapped it on such a lightweight piece of plastic. B-

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:



Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd (but made most sense to review here)
  • [bc] available at bandcamp.com
  • [dl] something I was able to download from the web; may be freely available, or may be a promo deal