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Sunday, May 25, 2003

Music: Initial count 8272 rated (+15), 909 unrated (+2). Didn't make expected progress on Parker last week -- did manage to throw together a discography which came to 176 titles, of which I have 50 to work on. This week, for sure. Pulled forward previously unfinished notes, as usual.

  • Aaliyah: I Care 4 U (2002, Blackground). One of the thoughts that ran through my mind on 2001-09-11 was that Aaliyah, 22 years old when she died in a plane crash, at least didn't have to experience this. In fact, excepting the relatively painless (for us, anyway) first round of Bush Wars, she was one of the few Americans of the last 60-70 years who may never have really experienced or been cognizant of America's serial wars. So, without any real familiarity with her music, I find it easy to associate her with an innocence of the world's brutal affairs. The music itself doesn't belie this: it rides on the soft beats that have become standard issue in r&b in the last 10-15 years, and she modulates her not especially large voice in the usual manner, hinting at gospel bliss without actually invoking it. Fourteen cuts, a mixed bag of reissues (not necessarily hits) and new tracks (i.e., leftovers). Some of it is pretty good, and if I played it a lot I might rate it higher, but I won't (not merely because this is a library copy). B+
  • Tanburi Cemil Bey (1910-14 [1994], Traditional Crossroads). These ancient Turkish recordings feel more like classical music than like folk: the instrumentation is exotic (strings and something flute-like), but they work through minor variations on simple themes in a methodical manner. (The booklet makes a comparison to Bach.) Historical. Interesting. Sound quality is decent. Not much of a beat. B
  • Chicago Underground Trio: Possible Cube (1998, Delmark). I count four players in this trio, although Jeff Parker may just be a guest. There seem to be dozens, maybe hundreds, of records similar to this: mild-mannered avant-gardism, full of nice little bits and special effects, even if they never quite add up to something you can remember. B
  • Daughter: Skin (2003, Aum Fidelity). New York punk rock band, fronted by two women: singer M.L. Platt and bass/vocals Nicole Lombardi. The first half strikes me as tentative, or at least unsorted, but the second half picks up quite a bit. "Hands in the Pants" cops that "I rock the mike" line from Northern State. "Love Song" has a much appreciated snarl, and "Sweet Appraisal" has a Heartbreakers undertow beneath the growl. "Lonely Gauge" deepens the Johnny Thunders connection: acoustic guitar strummed, under "I'm not done misbehavin'." Songs: "Erased" (harsh punk, "I wanna be [something]"; [something about] "erase myself"; establishes attitude, I guess), "Misbehaving" ("I'm not done misbehavin'"), "Hit Me" (more rant, fast heavy drums, some screams), "Suicide Note" ("I'm going to be the one you write your suicide note to"), "Blunt" (a background beat with overlapping/interfering raps, running on for 3:59), "Packin'" (much heavier music, similar interfering raps), "Hands in the Pants" ("I've been known to rock the mic/with my hands in my pants" [or was that "pants in my hands"?), "Love Song" (back to punk, sounds like a harder/harsher L7), "Sweet Appraisal" (sounds like the Heartbreakers, which means it sounds like the New York Dolls except less hooky and not recorded very well; the refrain "I never wanted your sweet appraisals" could go out for "Chinese Rocks"), "Lonely Gauge" (Johnny Thunders' next move after the Heartbreakers was to do an acoustic album of plaintive fuck-up songs, so why not reprise So Alone here? repeats "I'm not done misbehaving" [haven't we heard that one before?] and "it's a lonely gauge"), "Do I Dare" ("I'm not waiting for an invitation/to fuck all night without introduction"; another punk-out), untitled ("acoustics is the study of sound and is concerned with the ..."). Total time (34:42, including 4:17 in the untitled piece at the end) makes this to be an EP. A-
  • DJ Sammy: Heaven (2002, Robbins). The cheesecake techno version of "California Dreamin'" is, well, better than Wes Montgomery's: just when it starts to get too smarmy (which doesn't take much with this song) the beats come back and rescue it. The same sort of relentless upbeatism permeates this. Just read the song titles: "Heaven," "Sunlight," "The Boys of Summer," "Beautiful Smile," "Paradise of Love," "Take Me Back to Heaven." Then come the remixes. Not that those songs are distinguishable: the beats, the voice, the production, it's all pretty much the same. One trick pony. B
  • Grandmaster Flash: Essential Mix: Classic Edition (2002, Warner Strategic). This draws on sources that date back to 1972, hacked into a continuous mix with scratches and whatever. It's not clear exactly what to make of this -- Blondie's "Rapture" and Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" are fondly remembered, James Brown jumps out, and "Planet Rock" is a helluva closer. The mix tape is certainly a mixed bag genre: even if the pieces are classic, and the mix inspired, how much, like, creativity is really going down here. Don't know, but every time I play this it sounds better. B+
  • The Last Soul Company (1969-99, Malaco, 2CD). The last stop on the chitlin circuit for soul singers from Z.Z. Hill to Bobby Bland. They also did a 6CD box of this, but this one is probably enough: good ole soul music, adult, knowing, bluesy. Nothing wrong with it, but it says something that the one cut that sent me back to the booklet was by Z.Z. Hill, who did stellar work for the label, worth owning all by itself. B+
  • The Libertines: Up the Bracket (2003, Rough Trade). Seems to be this year's Hives, or Vines, or Strokes, or Doves, or one or more of those. I've played it 3-5 times by now, and it's not bad, but I still can't get to second base with it. Hidden track #14 goes acoustic, with some redeeming sloppiness, but is that all there is? Well, "I Get Along" is a pretty good song: more bass than most, more crunch, more regular, and an offhand "fuck 'em" to make up for the lack of much in the way of a lyric. But the time shifts and pop twists elsewhere don't do a thing for me. Lots of people love this. I don't hate it, but don't much care either. B
  • Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Pig Lib (2003, Matador). This hasn't had the instant appeal of his eponymous solo album, but is slowly starting to make some sense. Light-alt guitar band, not as idiosyncratic as Pavement or first solo; i.e., nothing sweeping, sweltering, or just miraculous despite being out of kilter. Don't know whether that's an improvement, since his vocals always had a without-the-net sense of derring-do. "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster" is a good title, and a better song. Gradually, almost everything here connects. A-
  • David Murray Latin Big Band: Now Is Another Time (2003, Justin Time). After initially being disappointed, it finally dawned on me that the point here, which is much the same point of most "latin big band" music, is nothing less than the celebration of excess: excessive percussion, excessive horns, excessively ornate piano, just an utter profusion of sound and sensation. As one schooled in Adorno's dictum ("the bourgeoisie likes its art lush and life ascetic; the other way around would be better"), this runs against the grain of my taste. On the other hand, maybe the art/life dichotomy isn't something that should be rigorously adhered to? It does, after all, seem so nordic. So with this album the key is to just sit back and enjoy it. Of course, the payoff is the man with the tenor sax: David Murray is the next name in the list of tenor sax giants after Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane, and if you don't know that by now I can point you to 40 or more albums that prove the point more conclusively than this one. But he's here in profusion, and he stands out as clearly here as on his lovely duo album, Tea for Two with George Arvanitis, or his classic bracing quartet Deep River, or his gorgeous quartet Like a Kiss That Never Ends, or his eloquent tribute to Don Pullen (Long Goodbye), or his funk masterpiece Shakill's Warrior, or his thrilling excursion into the French Caribbean (Creole), or his ambitious octet from Ming to Octet Plays Trane, or his previous big band excursion South of the Border, or, well, the list is practically endless. Murray solos in every piece here, with blinding speed and rousing intensity; the complexity of the music and the enthusiasm of the band just seem to life him ever higher. A-
  • Roxanne Shanté: The Best of Cold Chillin' (1994-92 [2002], Landspeed). Some fans of her early singles (starting with 1984's "Roxanne's Revenge") were bummed by her 1989 LP Bad Sister, but as a latecomer I was blown away. She did one more album, 1992's The Bitch Is Back, and hasn't been heard from since. But while best-ofs from two album acts (remember CSNY's Best Of (So Far)?) are usually jokes, I've long hoped that someone could sort through her singles and two albums and come up with a slam dunk story. 1995's 13-cut Greatest Hits was one candidate; this one (which substitutes two original 12-inch versions and adds four cuts: "Def Fresh Crew," "Bite This," "Run Away," and "The Payback") is another. Still, while I'm glad to have all that's here, I find myself missing Bad Sister's title track, "Fatal Attraction," and especially "Wack It." Could use some better dates and doc too. Maybe next time they'll frame her like the old school classic she is, two CDs, lavish booklet, the whole nine yards. No one in the game ever said "no" more emphatically, and it wasn't to drugs, either. A-
  • The Story of the Blues (1927-2001 [2003], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). This is a reissue of a short 2LP, padded out here with 13 bonus tracks (out of 18 on the second disc). It invites two separate reviews. The original issue ended with "Roll 'Em Pete" (Joe Turner & Pete Johnson) in 1939 -- except, that is, for one piece recorded in Ghana in 1964, intended to show African roots. It is, in other words, a tour of prewar acoustic blues roots, and for what it is it's very impressive, including many turns that aren't very familiar (e.g., "Georgia Crawl," by Henry Williams & Eddie Anthony). The bonus tracks, however, try to carry the story into the postwar period, but after a quick series of legitimate choices (Lightnin' Hopkins, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal) they throw in the towel and head into blues-rock (Jeff Beck, Electric Flag, Janis Joplin), rocking blues (Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan), stuff that has no business being here (Santana, Bob Dylan), and the unfortunate Keb' Mo'. The closer is by a group called Little Axe, which is presumed progressive because it samples Leadbelly and Howlin' Wolf. In short, the bonus tracks are useless, misleading, and not even all that listenable. A straight reissue might have been an A, and the first disc here is prime, and the good news is that you only have to play one disc at a time. The bad news is that you wind up paying for the misbegotten second disc anyhow. B+
  • Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: Global a Go-Go (2001, Epiatph). The best pieces here, such as "At the Border, Guy," sound like outtakes from Sandinista, which isn't a bad rut to be in. Not sure whether prolonged exposure would make this cohere better. (I'm working off a borrowed copy, and an annoyingly damaged one at that.) At first blush, the voice is still so recognizable that you expect the music to be no less than magnificent as well, but it's slight and skewed and more than a little endearing. We'll never know how far he might have taken this, which is sad, perhaps because we expect more. (As far as I know, the best thing he did post-Clash was one fine side of an otherwise disposable soundtrack, Permanent Record.) Will add this to the scrounge list, and hopefully return to it some day. B+
  • Sam Fan Thomas (1986, Kanibal/Sonodisc). From Cameroun, a guitar-rich rhythm similar to but lighter than soukous. Nice enough, but its five songs don't reach 30 minutes, and none of them demand much attention. Presumably this is the same record AMG lists as "Si Tcha" -- Sonodisc 59801, same number, and "Si Tcha" is the first song, but there is no indication of a title here, hence I'm listing it as eponymous. B
  • Early American Cajun Music: The Early Recordings of Leo Soileau (1928-37 [1999], Yazoo). Actually, the booklet doesn't resolve the dates very well: the first sessions were in 1928, but how far these "early recordings" go isn't clear. Probably into the 1932-37 period, in which the booklet notes Soileau recorded 78 numbers -- far more than the 19 collected here, so I have to figure 1937 as an end date, and I'm not sure that they extend past 1932. (They are, after all, "early recordings.") The music is typical, with Soileau's fiddle and various accordions dominating, but the voice has exceptional presence, and while I can't follow much of the French, I find it touching and personal. The biggest problem is the sound: especially toward the end it gets real archaeological, which moves the music from samey toward tedious. Still, a very interesting set. B+
  • Bob Wills: Take Me Back to Tulsa (1932-50 [2001], Proper, 4CD). Rhino's 2CD Anthology is the standard Wills set, with Columbia's Essential a good single CD fallback. The Rhino goes up to Wills' last sessions, but the material following the 1947 cutoff of Essential has never been all that essential. Still, the ten CDs of The Tiffany Transcriptions, cut in 1946-47, are full of wonders, and go a long ways toward establishing the swing in western swing -- or more specifically, its credentials as jazz. This set has 29 cuts from the Tiffany period (not sure if all of them are transcriptions), split between the 3rd and 4th CDs, finishing with 9 post-1947 cuts. But the big gain in this budget 4CD set is in the 1935-42 period, before Wills and most of his band got caught up in the WWII military: 62 cuts, and most of the surplus, especially on the first CD, amounts to a big gain. In the Texas Playboys, Wills played fiddle and quarterback; Tommy Duncan was the long-time singer, but Wills could be heard exclaiming or directing -- "take it away Leon" was probably his most characteristic line, leading into a solo by his superb steel guitar man, Leon McAuliffe. Eldon Shamblin's guitar is another one to keep an ear cocked for. Proper has issued these big boxes on most of the major players of the period, complete with a big, informative booklet and usually pretty good discography. What I've heard are terrific bargains, and hard to find fault with. So this is a good, rich sampler, and it meets the acid test for fat box sets -- that it doesn't much matter which of the four CDs you put on. A

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Newspaper got soaked in rain, so didn't read today's bad news, other than the headline that the Pentagon now approves of Boeing's new tanker lease program. This program has been sold hard in Wichita with the promise that it will add (or more properly speaking, not subtract) 1000 jobs at Boeing Wichita. I suppose one of those jobs might be my brother's, but even so the whole scam is awful, both tactically (since when, not to mention at what cost, does the federal government have to borrow from the private sector to buy something?) and strategically (tankers are what you might call "enabling technologies" for the U.S. capability to bomb any place in the world at any time, which is not my idea of a good thing).


Movie: A Mighty Wind. The folk music is caricatured, of course, but much more lovingly than I'd be tempted to do. Many of the scenes, at least considered in retrospect, must have been improvised, given that they come off more scattered than seems de rigeur. And of course, the movie is hilarious -- Ed Begley's broken yiddish on top of his own touching remembrances of growing up as a folk music devotee in Sweden is especially memorable. A-

Friday, May 23, 2003

Some items from The Wichita Eagle this morning:

  • Gas bills likely to soar this winter: "Kansans should prepare for natural gas bills this winter that likely will be at least 50 percent to 70 percent higher than last season's heating tab, utilities and regulators are warning." No explanation as to why, other than that Kansas Gas Service is wrangling for a $76M rate increase, but that's above and beyond the market price for gas, which is running at record high levels right now. Obviously, if this comes to pass it's going to put a severe squeeze on a city where unemployment is running close to 10%, and that figure undercounts those no longer looking (like me) and those who settled for big cuts to work in places like WalMart.

  • Battles continue, delay Iraqi peace: Three-inch item on a "fierce exchange of gunfire" in Al Fallujah. While it's debatable whether even given peaceful acquiescence to U.S. control (such as the U.N. has done) the U.S. would actually do any good in Iraq, the odds go down real fast when the U.S. has to face armed resistance -- the prospect of being attacked, and the temptation to strike back with extremely lethal force. This is, after all, a military that believes that its omnipotence should not entail any sacrifices. Much like this is a country that believes that it can fight endless foreign wars while slashing taxes at home.

  • U.S. weighs whether to destabilize Iran regime: In the first place, has there ever been a U.S. administration that has aired its internal disagreements so publicly as this one? While freedom of speech and open discussion seem like good ideas, the effect here is that the hawks have consistently used leaks to promote their positions, probably because they can depend on private sector groups to amplify them into the sort of political pressure that Bush responds to. At this point the expansion of America's war on the rest of the world is limited to talk and vague threats, such as "some officials think the United States should launch a limited air strike on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities if Iran appears on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon." (This is precisely what Israel did to Iraq, and it's a measure of U.S. Israelization that while the U.S. condemned Israel at the time, that act of war has been routinely applauded since then.)

    Another quote: "Some Pentagon officials suggested using the remnants of an Iranian opposition group once backed by Saddam Hussein, the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK). U.S. military forces in Iraq have disarmed the roughly 6,000-strong MEK, which is on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups. But the group's weapons are in storage, and it hasn't disbanded." This is just incredibly stupid: wasn't the Afghan Mujahedeen how we got into this mess in the first place? But it's probably just a strawman proposal: the hawks say, look, we can solve this problem on the cheap, and the morons (it's not like we can credibly call Colin Powell a dove) then have to respond with a more "realistic" plan, like economic sanctions that will only push Iran's buttons to become more militantly anti-U.S.

    This has been said many times, but if history tells us anything, it's that the only thing that halts serial aggressors is defeat. The last time the U.S. sought to destabilize Iran we wound up with Ayatollah Khomeini. I doubt that we will be so lucky this time.

  • U.S. agrees to revisions in Mideast peace plan: "In an effort to break a potential deadlock in the Middle East peace process, the Bush administration has acceded to Israel's demands that a U.S.-backed peace plan be subjected to significant revisions, U.S. officials said Thursday." So if you start out with a proposal which all major outside parties think is fair, and which is accepted in toto by the Palestinian Authority, why do you let one party/person, who has never shown the slightest regard for peace or justice in his long, miserable life, wreck the whole thing? It makes it look like the U.S. (i.e., Bush) was never serious in the first place. Not that we thought that he was.

  • Quake death toll climbs; rescue efforts continue: "Teams from Europe and Asia are in Algeria to help search the rabble for survivors of Wednesday's 6.8 earthquake." But where are the Arabs' new best friends, the liberators of Iraq?

  • Gen. Franks asks to retire early: . . . and get the hell out while the getting's good. I mean, do you think Afghanistan and/or Iraq are going to get any better?

  • $350 billion tax cut package is close to passing: "Workers, retirees and millionaires alike will all get more money." Can't forget those millionaires.

One rather common thread to these news stories is that things are getting out of control; worse than that, that the ability to marshall forces to cope with events -- including things beyond any control, such as earthquake -- is degenerating and atrophying. The predictions that both the Bush Administration and its allies elsewhere made so boldly have almost all proven to be untrue; the "intelligence" that they claimed they were based on has correlated very poorly with reality; the expectations that they evidently had about the competency of U.S. forces, their actions, and the effects of those actions, has been absurdly optimistic. We're now reading reports that the U.K. is complaining about U.S. ineptitude in securing Baghdad and that this is having serious repercussions for U.K. troops in Basra. Indeed, combine those reports with the Bush cave-in on the Palestine Roadmap and it's hard to see even Tony Blair getting enthusiastic about the next U.S. military misadventure.

Meanwhile, who is really trying to add up the costs to Americans of Bush's policies, both foreign and domestic?

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Bill Phillips sent me a news notice that Caldera (dba SCO) has sold a license of its Unix technology to Microsoft. The effect of this is that now Microsoft is financing Caldera's lawsuit against IBM and its attendant propaganda war against Linux. (Caldera has also halted shipments of its own Linux operating system products.) Given that David Boies (the DOJ's trial lawyer in the Microsoft antitrust case) represents Caldera against IBM, the irony here is pretty severe. I looked up Boies and found an email address, so I wrote him a little letter:

David Boies,

As I understand it, you are representing Caldera (now dba "SCO Group") in their lawsuit against IBM. As I understand it, this lawsuit alleges that IBM violated contracts regarding confidentiality of intellectual property that IBM signed with Caldera's antecedents, and also that IBM contributions to Linux (allegedly including some part of said IP) were made with the intent of destroying the market for Unix operating system software. I read the original filing of this lawsuit, and with the possible exception of some details regarding Project Monterey (which I am somewhat familiar with, having worked for the original, real SCO at that time) I'm afraid that your complaint is a crock of shit.

However, I'm not writing to you now to argue details in this case. I just want to point out that if you continue with this case you will be doing serious harm to your reputation as a lawyer and a citizen. Like many people, I am most familiar with you because of your work in bringing the Microsoft antitrust case to trial. As you know, that case was brought forth because Microsoft had attempted to monopolize the market for operating system software (successfully for personal or desktop machines, less so for server or enterprise machines) through a complex maze of exclusionary deals with other hardware, software, and services companies. Up to three years ago, by far the largest competitor that Microsoft still faced was SCO (about $200M in OS sales, vs. about $5000M for Microsoft, which is to say that SCO had almost 4% of the market, mostly concentrated in the small server niche). While there were many fishy things about SCO's business over the years, one was that Microsoft had long held a significant slice of SCO's stock. (Which they sold off, as most of SCO's top management also did, just before the Y2K bubble burst.)

It is worth noting that the only thing that Caldera has ever done to make money is to sue Microsoft. As you no doubt know, an early victim of Microsoft's anticompetitive strategies was DRDos, which Novell and subsequently Caldera bought the rights to when it was nothing more than a right to sue Microsoft. Caldera eventually settled its DRDos lawsuit with Microsoft, securing a substantial settlement at a time when Microsoft clearly did not want to expose its activities in court. What Caldera did with that money was to buy SCO, which among other assets had rights to the Unix operating system (passed through USL and Novell -- who, by the way, did more economic damage to Unix than IBM ever could). Caldera has, in turn, mismanaged its SCO business (much as it had its own Linux business) to the point where now, once again, they have no business prospects except to sue someone. The obvious candidate, of course, would be Microsoft, but what we're actually seeing is that Caldera has become Microsoft's tool against old-rival IBM and especially against Linux. And now this connection has become explicit, with Microsoft funding Caldera under the guise of licensing technology which it has never needed and which is in effect the final consummation of Microsoft's OS monopoly.

I'm sorry to have to say this, but I find this shocking that you should be willing to play a role in this case, to do Microsoft's bidding in a venture that threatens to lock us more securely in their hold (even if it's more likely to eventually be judged as a pathetic exercise in desperation). I mean, if you're willing to take cases like this, what will stop you from representing George W. Bush next time he needs to fix a broken election?

Monday, May 19, 2003

Movie: The Good Thief. Don't have much to say about this one: it's another of those stealing-from-thieves two-wrongs-makes-a-right things. What little it has going for it is in the details -- the south of France, and its seamy underworld. B

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Music: Initial count 8257 rated (+20), 907 unrated (+2). Pulled the Parker notes forward one more time -- that will be my main project for this week.

  • Tim Berne: The Shell Game (2001, Thirsty Ear). With Craig Taborn on electronics/keyboards and Tom Rainey on drums. One slice of this showed up in Blue Series Essentials, and basially stole the show -- a surprise since I've always considered Berne to be close to the border-line of unlistenability. This is fairly heavy, but still well within the domain of normal listening. The first song, "Hard Cell (for Tom)," seems to be struggling with its rhythm, and the second, "Twisted/Straight Jacket," starts off with a stretch of electronics that doesn't seem to have much direction, although in the long run (20+ minutes in this case) it evolves into a thoughtful piece that, again, doesn't have much direction. "Heavy Mental (for Wayne Kravitz)" is something else: heavier, more aggressive, very impressive piece (the one from the comp). The final piece is another long one, taking off from the electronics and working slowly and pleasurably. Not the tour de force I was hoping for, but pretty solid work. B+
  • The Essential Blue Oyster Cult (1971-83 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). They started out as the Thinking Man's Black Sabbath -- not necessarily something that we needed, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The first side of Tyranny Mutation was at least the best conceived heavy metal album ever, and Agents of Fortune lifted their schtick onto the charts. No more than two cuts per album; I doubt that any of their later albums are worth owning, but "Godzilla," "Black Blade," and "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" are rather listenable, and the closing "Take Me Away" isn't awful. B
  • Le Grand Kalle et l'African Jazz (1966-1967) (1966-67 [1993], Sonodisc). Too subtle, perhaps, but otherwise hard to find fault with, a series of delicate pre-soukous grooves. A-
  • Elmore James: Shake Your Money Maker: The Best of the Fire Sessions (1959-61 [2001], Buddha). No real surprises here: Elmore's Fire Sessions were the pinnacle of his career, and they make up the biggest slice of Rhino's outstanding The History of Elmore James: "Shake Your Moneymaker," "Look on Yonder Wall," "The Sky Is Crying," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Sunnyland," "Standing at the Crossroads." The less familiar stuff isn't much of a drop-off, although he tends to recycle hooks quite a bit, so it sounds more familiar than it is. A
  • King Tubby & Friends: Dub Like Dirt (1975-77 [1999], Blood & Fire). The echoes and reverbs are almost stereotypical; the groove as fine as usual. Mostly instrumental. In other words, pretty much what you'd expect. B+
  • Bettye Lavette: A Woman Like Me (2003, Blues Express). The final resting place of old soul singers has been small blues labels, and this is no exception. The question is why does this sound so good? The cover of the detestable Robert Cray benefits from gender reversal, of course, although its familiarity doesn't help. Rather, the feeling predominates that this has been locked in a time capsule somewhere -- much of the fun is in its discovery, whereas covers just show off her technique. Not that there's anything wrong with the technique. I make her about midway between Ann Peebles and Millie Jackson, which is an interesting place to be. A-
  • The Essential Thelonious Monk (1962-68 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). Monk's pathbreaking work was well behind him when he signed up with Columbia: in particular, his songbook was pretty much written by the mid-'50s, and these eleven cuts are well worn standards. But what makes Monk's late Columbia work worthwhile was his well-seasoned quartet, especially Charlie Rouse, who plays this difficult music with extraordinary aplomb. Two solo cuts, one with Pee Wee Russell at Newport, one big band, the rest with the quartet. A-
  • Joe Morris Quartet: A Cloud of Black Birds (1998, Aum Fidelity). Quartet consists of Morris (guitar), Chris Lightcap (bass), Mat Maneri (violin), Jerome Deupree (drums). Morris' use of the single plucked string lets him dance around the guitar like Charlie Parker on sax, the difference being a thinness and delicacy of sound. Bass and violin add to the string resonance and the complexity of their interaction gives this album more weight than Morris usually gets. "Radiant Flux" is a fine example of the whole thing working: rich and vibrant. B+
  • Nada Surf: Let Go (2002, Barsuk). I'm not sure that this will be my final judgment, but here goes: I like almost all of this richly textured, oppulent even, piece of modern pop-rock. But a couple of cuts make me wonder, and after having played it through three times in the last 24 hours, plus half-a-dozen times before, there's nothing here that I find myself caring about. The "Blonde on Blonde on the stereo" line is memorable, but it's not what I would pick, or even pick for them; I like the French song, but don't quite get it, and I doubt that that should be blamed in my mediocre command of la langue français. So it's time to move on. B+
  • Organic Grooves: Black Cherry (2002, Aum Fidelity). This is a remix of William Parker/Hamid Drake, Piercing the Veil, Volume 1. Hard to really write about it: the beats give it a regularity that is lacking in the original, which also makes it hard to map -- when we hear a little sound, is that a remixed sample or something newly added? As atmospheric groove albums go, however, this is superb. A-
  • Other Dimensions in Music: Now! (1998, Aum Fidelity). Quartet of Roy Campbell (trumpet), Daniel Carter (sax, flute, trumpet), William Parker (bass), Rashid Bakr (drums). Starts with a 33:00 piece, "For the Glass Tear/After Evening's Orange," which takes its own sweet time to skip around the edges of collaboration, starting with a lot of Roy Campbell trumpet and winding down with a little too much Daniel Carter flute. The next piece is called "Tears for the Boy Wonder (For Winston Marsalis)" -- starts with a bass solo, then slowly adds trumpet and sax. The following pieces rather slip by, but the finale, "Steve's Festive Visions Revisited" wakes everyone back up. B
  • William Parker Trio: Painter's Spring (2000, Thirsty Ear). With Daniel Carter on reeds and flute and Hamid Drake on drums. The first cut reminds you that when it comes to swinging a band, not even John Kirby has anything on Parker. The fifth cut, "There Is a Balm in Gilead," is a ballad with a long bass solo with just enough edge to steer it away from being drop-dead gorgeous. The two "Foundation" cuts are showcases for Carter, who is as formidable here as on O'Neal's Porch. Haven't paid close enough attention to nail down all of the delights here -- for another thing, Drake sounds as impressive here as ever -- but I'm impressed. A-
  • William Parker Quartet Featuring Leena Conquest: Raining on the Moon (2001 [2002], Thirsty Ear). Parker, Drake, Rob Brown (alto, flute), and Louis Barnes (trumpet), with Conquest singing. The first cut, "Hunk Papa Blues," is a natural. "Song of Hope" has a vocal. "Old Tears" is a slow, lovely piece, with a brief trumpet solo, then another on sax. "Raining on the Moon" has another vocal, about an Indian taking over the presidency ("the white house is not the red house"; "Mahatma Gandhi is now minister of defense"; meanwhile the horns riff around her pronouncements). "James Baldwin to the Rescue" comes from an earlier album, but is shaped more economically here. In fact, while the popcraft is certainly skewed here -- Parker and Drake are so good that they can bend the rhythm any which way and let you dig it, while Brown and Barnes are experts by now at improvising in this context. A
  • Boz Scaggs: My Time: The Anthology (1969-97 [1997], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). A singer-songwriter who always seemed to fit more into the pop tradition than rock and roll, but because he rarely goes over the top and generally exudes soulfulnes he's not bad. I had a couple of his LPs way back when -- don't remember enough about Boz Scaggs to rate it, but I remember the cover. The first few cuts here are pretty awful, but they get better, and even something as light and mushy as "Harbor Lights" has a certain elegance. Still, over the course of two long CDs this gets to be pretty tedious. B-
  • Jimmy Rushing: Five Feet of Soul (1963 [1998], Collectables). The 1963 date is for the Colpix album reissued here; don't know when the four bonus cuts came out -- they are attributed to Gotham Recodings. The Colpix cuts are the usual big band affairs, with Rushing sounding just magnificent, especially on songs like "Just Because" and "Heartaches." The band gets better on "Trouble in Mind" -- blues wails on trumpet, little fills on sax, that sort of thing. Terrific version of "Did You Ever," which he wrote and has done many times. A-
  • Spring Heel Jack: Amassed (2002, Thirsty Ear). Not electronica, even though John Coxon and Ashley Wales claim responsibility for "all other instruments" -- there's just not that much room left in the company of these big league avantists: Han Bennink, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Matthew Shipp, Kenny Wheeler, and a handful of less well known names. The noise quotient is high, the pace is mostly slow, and the sound effects -- not much here to suggest words like "melody" -- scatter widely. Wheeler gets in some nice trumpet on "Lit." Parker's piece, "Maroc," pairs his soprano sax with electronic squiggles, to interesting effect. The final cut, "Obscured," is my favorite piece of industrial noise in recent years, but overall a mixed bag. B+
  • Rachid Taha: Live (2002, Mondo Melodia). This took a lot longer than Made in Medina or Diwan to cut in. And I haven't tracked down the overlap, which may be considerable. So as these things go, this one is probably superfluous. Still, as a standalone item, this is a lot of fun to listen to. A-
  • The White Stripes: Elephant (2003, V2). The one thing I'm most sure of with this group is that they're the most aggressively marketed, most excitedly hyped band in alt-rock history. It's enough to make you permanently skeptical -- especially when they sound more arena than alt, which happens more and more these days. But this is also a group that covered "St. James Infirmiary" on an early album, which is neither alt nor arena but sort of suggests that they have some roots and some learning behind them, which they can summon up in a jam. Three or four times here they fall back into a blues/country novelty mode -- "Well It's True That We Love One Another" seems like something that belongs (well, if you lose the fake-Engish accents) on something like A Whiter Shade of Blue. A-
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (2003, Interscope). Another alt-rock hype: has anyone ever milked one EP for more mileage? I rather like her voice, and the music's agreeably simple. Don't notice many lyrics, but here's one: "Boy you're a stupid bitch/and girl you're a no good dick." They slow it down a little toward the end on "Modern Romance," then they got a hidden track that is slower and more haphazard, which serves them well. A-

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

I read a piece in the Village Voice called Hanging the Judge, by Daniel King, about how JazzTimes has dropped Stanley Crouch's monthly column. It's a long piece (2600 words), and it collects a lot of information, but it also ignores a lot, and in the end it says very little. Except maybe, inadvertently, it shows something about the ambivalence and confusion that playing the race card engenders among white jazzbos. That is, of course, because the music is so overwhelmingly indebted to afroamerican musicians, but jazz has also, paradoxically perhaps, estranged itself from the afroamerican masses -- not so completely that there are we are in danger of running out of black musicians (I'd guess that the ratio in the US runs about 50-50 and hasn't changed significantly in 30+ years). But writers are more likely to reflect the fan base, and the fan base for jazz, in the US at least, is overwhelmingly white. But is that a problem? It seems to me that about the only interesting thing you can say about race in jazz nowadays is that it doesn't make any difference at all. If the only thing you know about a jazz instrumentalist is his/her race, you know absolutely nothing about what he/she sounds like. If all you know is what you hear, you know nothing about race either. Which isn't to say that black musicians don't have different experiences, expectations, etc., but once you get down to music it has never made less difference than now; and in the future I expect that will become a true statement for all other musical forms.

The situation with writers may be different. Certainly, we all know that Stanley Crouch is black: that's always been his subject, and anyone who don't know that by now really hasn't paid attention. When Crouch is sharp -- which hasn't happened recently, but has been known to happen in the past -- it's usually because he has some insight into the racial dynamics of a situation. But if/when the situation isn't racial -- which is increasingly the case with jazz -- then what does Crouch have to offer? Damn little, really. He's a lazy, sloppy writer, and he's gotten so deep in bed with Wynton Marsalis and his clique that it's hard to take him seriously. And that he's also fallen in love with Laura Bush hasn't encouraged us to cut him much slack, either.

Crouch has been writing that JazzTimes column for less than a year, so it's impossible to imagine that the editors didn't know what they were going to get -- at least in terms of Crouch's politics and aesthetics. So it's also hard to imagine that they fired him for such reasons. What they may not have expected was just how dull his rants and raves would turn out to be. And how obvious. The column where he attacks the White Jazz Critic Establishment is a flat-out attack on Dave Douglas, which omits any mention of what should have been his prime evidence: that Douglas regularly kicks Wynton Marsalis's butt in "best trumpet" polls. He might even have pointed out how the ofays at Downbeat used to regularly rate Mildred Bailey above Billie Holiday -- the classic race-flavored injustice (except that the story was more complicated than that). But had he brought in the polls, he'd have to compare Douglas and Marsalis -- after all, Douglas is the white guy who always wins, as opposed to Tom Harrell, Jack Walrath, Randy Brecker, Randy Sandke, Ingrid Jensen, Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko, Valery Ponomarev, or the late Ruby Braff. But Crouch does no such thing: he merely attacks Douglas, and makes a blanket claim that he's nothing compared to Terrence Blanchard and Wallace Roney. I don't want to try to sort out the trumpet hierarchy here -- if I did, I'd be just as likely to argue for Leo Smith, who may not have the chops of Marsalis or Douglas but who's been more consistently interesting lately -- but I don't see how anyone can just dismiss Douglas without, like, discussing his music.

The other side of Crouch's coin is his penchant for hyping his buddies, so it's fitting that his last column was a love letter to Eric Reed. Eric Reed? You know, the gospel drenched hard swinging pianist who can run rings around any other under-40 pianist working today. You know, the guy who plays piano in Wynton Marsalis's group. When I finally read the column -- on first glance I skipped it, since it looked like sheer crap -- it sent me back to the stacks to refresh my memory of Reed. But the only Reed album I have, a trio set called Pure Imagination, is, well, the word that comes to mind is "proficient." No doubt that Reed can play, but do you have any idea how many real good young pianists are working today? Actually, I don't: for one thing I'm missing birth dates for most of them. (But some that I have dates for are: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Marcus Roberts, Benny Green, Danilo Perez, Jackie Terrasson, D.D. Jackson, Kevin Hays, Stephen Scott, Brad Mehldau, Eric Reed, Geoff Keezer, George Colligan, Vijay Iyer, and Orrin Evans; Cyrus Chestnut has just turned 40, and seems like he should be a perfect match for Crouch's taste; some likely candidates without dates include: David Berkman, Bill Charlap, Ethan Iverson [the "white flavor of the month" cited in King's article], Jason Moran, Craig Taborn; some near post-40 types: Renee Rosnes, Matthew Shipp, Rodney Kendrick; some 45-50 year-olds who seem younger: Myra Melford, Geri Allen, Uri Caine, Georg Graewe, Mulgrew Miller, Fred Hersch, Alan Pasqua, Paul Plimley, Michele Rosewoman.) Again, the problem with Crouch isn't so much that he's hyping Reed as that his reasons are so generic and uninteresting.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Music: Initial count 8237 rated (+17), 905 unrated (+1). Turned in Recycled Goods column. Moved unfinished pieces forward, including some by William Parker et al. that I'm still working on.

  • Ryan Adams: Demolition (2002, Lost Highway). The relatively informal presentation helps, but it also helps that nothing is dead slow or totally boring. But I can't say that I enjoyed the strings at the end, and I can't remember much that transpired before. If I thought he mattered I might try harder. I do, after all, think that he's a talented guy. But I'm wondering if he'll ever make me care. B
  • Lee Allen: Walkin' With Mr. Lee (1958 [1994], Collectables). Pretty straightforward: Allen hails from New Orleans and plays sax; these are instrumentals which fit nicely with the funky soul of the times and town. He's not an astonishing player in his own right, but this sounds just fine. B+
  • Badawi Presents Bedouin Sound Clash (1996, ROIR). Badawi is Raz Mesinai, an Israeli percussionist (from Jerusalem, but now based in New York) who as a child learned "middle eastern drumming" with Bedouins in the Sinai Desert and in drumming circles with Yemenite and Moroccan Jews. (Under his own name he's recorded several albums on Tzadik.) This is basically dub (reggae instrumental), with beats and string effects, but very subdued. B
  • Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe 1970-1978 (1970-78 [2002], Warner Bros./Rhino, 2 CD). Good enough as a hardrock band (heavyweight division); also full of shit, and their ballads suck, but what else is new? B
  • The Essential Dave Brubeck (1949-2002 [2003], Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD). This augments Brubeck's voluminous Columbia recordings with early material from Fantasy and late from Telarc. Much of this, of course, features Paul Desmond, who always sounds gorgeous. The first disc is really excellent, with the live version of "Le Souk" (sound a bit off, but Brubeck reels off one of his finest solos) and "Brandenburg Gate" (another superb Brubeck solo) as standouts, and ending with "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (one of his famous off-time signature pieces) and "There'll Be Some Changes Made" (with Jimmy Rushing). The second disc starts with "Take Five": the one stone classic Brubeck got out of his non-4/4 work. The rest of the disc is much more varied than the first: "Kathy's Waltz" is cut with a fancy string orchestra, but the featured soloists on piano and alto sax still shine; the three vocal pieces with Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, and Tony Bennett are terrific (especially McRae); there are experiments with latin rhythms ("Bossa Nova U.S.A.," "La Paloma Azul," "Recuerdo" -- with Gerry Mulligan in lieu of Demond, a marvelous turn -- and "Caravan"); and there's a gorgeous ballad called "Autumn in Washington Square." The final cuts from the Musicmasters and Telarc albums wind down nicely, with a solo on "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" and a quartet (with Bobby Mitello in the late Paul Desmond's alto sax chair) on "Love for Sale." I was never quite convined by Brubeck's Time Signatures box, but this economical survey is just superb from beginning to end. A
  • Cabaret Voltaire: Three Mantras (1980 [1990], Restless/Mute). This is a group (duo, I guess) with a lot in the catalog, but this is the first thing I've heard by them, so take this with more than the usual grain of salt. This consists of two 20+ minute pieces. The first sounds like lightweight industrial disco, monotonic drums, various swooping sound effects; it's not bad. The second brings on more voices, a kind of choral chant, and it's not so appealing. B-
  • Crooked Fingers: Red Devil Dawn (2003, Merge). Got a secondhand advance on this one, and haven't heard the earlier ones either. But I gather this is a side-project by Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf, a band that I found impressive but ultimately unenjoyable at a time when I was souring on white guitar bands). Not that I recognize the voice, which hear tries to split the difference between Dylan and Waits. Richly textured, songwriterly, impressively MOR. It will take a few more spins to figure out whether I care, in which case the grade could be bumped a notch. B+
  • Missy Elliott: Under Construction (2002, Elektra). And the theme for the day is, "get more paper." Almost every song starts with blather about "this is a Missy Elliott explosive" -- excessive indulgence in brand naming which raises the question of just how much she actually has to do with this thang. E.g., as opposed to Timbaland, who keeps the beats in good shape. Still, one does not live by beats alone, and the beatless pontificating gets to be a major annoyance. B+
  • Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards (2001, Epitaph). Good, smart hard punk album. B+
  • Funky Stuff: The Best of Funk Essentials (1973-79 [1993], Mercury/Chronicles). Discography in notes only refers to comps, which makes it hard to track down the dates. This is what I came up with: '73, Funky Stuff (Kool); '75, Jungle Jazz (Kool); '76: Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Parliament), I Want'a Do Something Freaky to You (Leon Haywood), Too Hot to Stop (Bar-Kays); '77, Flash Light (Parliament), Rigor Mortis (Cameo), Ffun (Con Funk Shun); '78, Let's Start the Dance (Bohannon); '79, Chase Me (Con Funk Shun), I Don't Believe You Wanna Get Up and Dance (Gap Band). A-
  • The Go-Betweens: Bright Yellow Bright Orange (2003, Jetset). Lit majors who take this group seriously assure that this doesn't quite cut it, but with no more attention that I'm able to pay to it, this sounds pretty good to me. "Poison in the Wall" sounds good enough for a best-of -- maybe not good enough for 1978-1990, but good enough for any normal good band best-of, anyway. And I won't be surprised if/when other songs kick in. Meanwhile, it's at least: B+
  • Roy Hamilton: The Anthology (1953-62 [1995], Collectables, 2CD). Opens with "Don't Let Go," a worthy, sprightly hit from 1959. Then it falls back on his earliest singles, sounding pre-rock, most notably a take on "Unchained Melody" which does justice to its grandeur. He loosens up a bit on "A Great Romance," with a loose latin beat, terrific song. Another great version: "You Can Have Her," with gospel backing, sounds like the original prototype for the late/fat Elvis. The second disc leans more on Nat Cole ("Route 66," "Mona Lisa"), more crooner than anything else. As a crooner I think he's pretty good, but I'm no expert on the matter -- can't say how he might stack up against, say, Johnny Mathis. Collectables has been reissuing Hamilton in configurations up to a 6-CD box, but even this seems a bit excessive. B+
  • Mr. Lif: Emergency Rations (2002, Definitive Jux, EP). Starts with a lecture that starts with Patrice Lumumba. This EP is more political than the album, more urgent, harder hitting -- which is not to say that it's better, but it's easier to get a bead on. A-
  • Mocean Worker: Mixed Emotional Featuers (1999, Palm Pictures). Adam Dorn has a jazz pedigree: the son of Joel Dorn, whose Muse label has been recycled as 32 Jazz and is now somewhere in the vaults of Savoy Jazz. "Counts, Dukes & Strays" is a set of jazz samples, including the words "one more time" (that would be Count, right?) and a little piano riff along with drum 'n' bass beats. "Motion Booty" is an interesting cut, with a little bit of synth backdrop a bit like "Planet Rock." "Times of Danger" is even better, faster, with a dash of "Peter Gunn." B+
  • Mott the Hoople: Greatest Hits (1972-75 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). The original seemed like a pointless collection, especially given the absence of my favorite song ("I Wish I Were Your Mother") from the three albums reduced here (plus live cut and stray single, for the collectors, y'know). And I still wouldn't recommend this over the 2-CD (i.e., almost complete) The Ballad of Mott: A Retrospective, or for that matter their best-ever Mott (both with the aforementioned song), but as ancient strata becomes more and more compressed, this more or less captures them -- Ian and Mick and poor Overend, the one who's "just a rock 'n' roll star." And it makes the case that they were a lot closer to fitting into the slacker anthemists from Dazed and Confused than we thought at the time. Two bonus cuts don't hurt ("Sweet Jane," "One of the Boys"). A-
  • Ms. Dynamite: A Little Deeper (2003, Interscope). Much anticipated -- winner of UK's Mercury Prize. I've played this enough now to be pretty sure of the grade, but less sure how to justify it. The first two cuts are plenty strong, with the "tee" at the end of "Dy-na-mi-tee" being the surest hook. But most of the album is rather flat-toned (dull here referring to the finish not the effect), which makes it hard to pigeonhole. For instance, the English accent sounds at first like an affectation on top of a voice that could almost pass for Mary J. Blige, but in the end it's of a piece with the diminished beats. But the title track puts it over -- very sparse musically, with repeated urgings to "dig a little deeper," that pay off nicely in the listening. A-
  • Panama Francis: All Stars 1949 (1949 [1990], Collectables). Fair-to-good jump blues band. Not sure who's playing sax -- Danny Turner and George Kelly are mentioned in the liner notes as "the front line," and some cuts sound like they have two saxes, maybe one tenor and one alto. [Kelly plays tenor; Turner, a Basie alumnus, usually plays alto.] Sound is very uneven here, which takes its toll both at the beginning and end. B
  • Roswell Rudd's Malicool (2003, Sunnyside). The veteran avant-garde trombonist meets Toumani Diabate and friends for some rather atmospheric kora, balophone, ngone, djembe, guitar, bass and 'bone. Rudd sounds fine in this context, and Diabate sounds much like he always does, but you'd think the meeting ought to have generated a little more edge. Like maybe they could use a drummer? B+
  • The Essential Ricky Skaggs (1979-88 [2003], Epic/Legacy). Skaggs has since settled into a comfy career pursuing his first true love, which is bluegrass. But during the '80s he was a Nashville contender, and this samples the period more concisely than its 2-CD predecessor, 1998's Country Gentleman. A-
  • Slobberbone: Crow Pot Pie (1996 [2001], New West). One of several alt-country albums that New West reissued; picked up as candidates for the column, but they're kind of minor for that. Which isn't to say that they aren't good: alt-country these days is the new pub rock, rock's unassuming common denominator. This band sounds like a band, lots of guitar/bass, heavy handed drums, pretty fair songs, good singer. I like the closer "Dunk You in the River," and "Little Sister," and "Sober Song," and . . . well, they all sound OK to me. B+
  • Slobberbone: Barrel Chester (1997 [2002], New West). "Engine Joe" is the first change-of-pace I've heard from this group, at least for the first minute until they slobberbone it up for a stretch, then go back and reel off another verse. Still, while the diversity should help, it doesn't do much for me. B
  • Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (2003, Matador). Easy going, with soft, delicate touches -- sometimes instrumentals run on, but they can be as appealling as primo Wes Montgomery. A-

Sunday, May 04, 2003

Music: Initial count 8220 rated (+16), 904 unrated (+9). Working on Recycled Goods column. Moved some old, mostly unfinished entries forward -- I guess that's what I get for starting entries prematurely.

  • Sam Cooke: Keep On Movin' (1963-64 [2002], Abkco). Cooke was 33 when he was killed on Dec. 11, 1964. One of those questions we'll never know the answer to is what Cooke would have done had the bullet gone elsewhere. When you think about it, a lot of '50s stars continued to have hits in the early '60s, but very few of them survived the '64-'65 British Invasion: James Brown is the biggest exception, his later work actually towering over his pre-'65 (let alone pre-'60) work. Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis ducked into country music. Elvis Presley had his big comeback c. 1969, but it's hard to think of anything notable he did after 1970. Who else? Ray Charles? The Isley Brothers? Ike & Tina Turner? Not much of a list. Sure, Neil Sedaka and Roy Orbison and Paul Anka had brief comebacks, and Chuck Berry had "My Ding-a-ling." You can ask the same question about Buddy Holly -- clearly, like Cooke, he had a lot going for him when he died. This set with a couple of exceptions was cut in the last year of Cooke's life ("Another Saturday Night" comes from 1963-02-28; nothing after that until two cuts on 1963-09-11 and more on 1963-12-20/21; there are also two 1959 cuts with overdubs). Eight of these 23 cuts also show up on The Man and His Music, one of the greatest best-ofs ever, so in a sense they are superfluous here. A-
  • The Ebonys (1973 [2003], Epic/Legacy). A vocal quartet from Camden, NJ. This is the first of their two albums, and was produced by Gamble-Huff. First song I really noticed was "Sexy Ways," which kicks hard. Good vocal build-up on "I'm So Glad I'm Me." But in the end the vocal overkill takes over. B
  • Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (1940-44 [2003], Bluebird, 3 CD). I could gripe about the packaging -- if there ever was music which justified the "jewel box" conceit, this is it. A+
  • The Funky 16 Corners (1969-74 [2001], Stones Throw). These were scattered local bands -- Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Greenville (SC), Taylorsville (NC), Syracuse, LA. None of them were well known, and it's clearly been a labor of love to track them down and rustle up this comp. Some are ordinary garden variety funk, but a few cuts are resplendent -- "Dap Walk," "The Funky 16 Corners." A-
  • Caravan of Love: The Best of Isley Jasper Isley (1984-87 [2003], Epic/Legacy). "Caravan of Love" went #1 r&b, #51 pop. Five more singles charted, nowhere near as successfully, and indeed none of them sound like hits, or even familiar. This represents half of the Isleys -- at least half of the sextet from their early '70s, which was probably their peak. "Liberation" is anchored to a hard bass line. "If You Believe in Love" is a nice ballad. On the other hand, "Blue Rose" is a crappy ballad -- stretched and forced and frustrating. "Brother to Brother" is another one that stands out for its lameness. "Serve You Right" works better, partly because it steps lightly. B
  • Let's Do Rocksteady: The Story of Rocksteady 1966-68 (1966-68 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). Rocksteady emerged in 1966 from a regular walking bass line, as opposed to the oscillating pumping rhythm of ska. It was an elegant little rhythm, a stepping stone in the evolution of Jamaican music from ska to reggae. A classic example is Alton Ellis' "Girl I've Got a Date," and Ellis is prominent in this anthology (four cuts, including the signature "Rocksteady"). Another classic is "Ba Ba Boom," by the Jamaicans. Another: "Intensified," by Desmond Dekker. A-
  • The Manhattans (1976 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). Best thing here seems to be "Kiss and Say Goodbye" -- where their workmanlike harmonies finally meet a song with something going for it. "How Can Anything So Good Be So Bad for You?" also works. B+
  • Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: Wake Up Everybody (1975 [2003], Epic/Legacy). Without being anything resembling an expert, this sounds a lot like what I'd figure for Gamble-Huff -- long, heavily orchestrated, heavily produced extravaganzas topped with singers (or a singer, and that would be Teddy Pendergrass) who can handle the traffic. The title cut runs 7:32. "Tell the World How I Feel About 'Cha Baby" is 5:53, and in some ways is even more impressive, because there's so little more to the song than the sheer muscle of the players. Closes with a second (Tom Moulton) mix of "Don't Leave Me This Way," which is better than the Four Tops ever could've done. B+
  • The O'Jays: Ship Ahoy (1973 [2003], Epic/Legacy). "Put Your Hands Together" has some gospel uplift. "Ship Ahoy" is a bit melodramatic, after a long sound effects intro. "You Got Your Hooks in Me" is also overwrought. "You Got Your Hooks in Me" too. "For the Love of Money" sounds familiar -- maybe a hit, maybe from comps, maybe just their general vibe? Still heavy. "Now That We Found Love" is much lighter -- now this one could've been a hit. "Don't Call Me Brother" returns to the heavy -- well, almost. B
  • Punky Reggae Party: New Wave Jamaica 1975-1980 (1975-80 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2 CD). Reggae effectively metastasized around 1975, spreading from being a mostly local Jamaican music to an international phenomenon on a broad scale. Bob Marley was the figurehead, but Jamaican breakouts included Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear, the Heptones, Black Uhuru, the Mighty Diamonds, and dozens of others -- some more names from this set include Lee "Scratch" Perry, Gregory Isaacs, Linval Thompson, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Junior Murvin, the Congos, Junior Delgado, John Holt, Barrington Levy, and Prince Jammy. Marley's "Natural Mystic" keys the first disc here; Brown's "Money in My Pocket" closes the second. As opposed to the earlier Tighten Up, the pieces here are broad and expensive, and virtually all of them hook in a major way. Don't know where the name comes from -- the punks themselves always preferred ska, the rude boys liked their rocksteady, and both of the above were much more stripped down that this material, which isn't sumptuous but certainly is pop. A
  • ?uestlove Presents Babies Makin' Babies (1973-78 [2002], Urban Theory). The guy from the Roots traces out roots of his own: Smokey Robinson ("Quiet Storm"), Heatwave ("The Star of a Story"), Michael Henderson ("Be My Girl"), New Birth ("It's Been a Long Time"), Deniece Williams ("That's What Friends Are For"), Bill Withers ("Can We Pretend": dig the guitar), Patrice Rushen ("Before the Dawn": nice lounge instrumental), Earth Wind & Fire ("Clover"), Minnie Ripperton ("Inside My Love": "will you come inside me?"), Rufus & Chaka Khan ("Magic in Your Eyes"), the Rationals ("Glowin'": "don't commit suicide/keep on glowin'"), Jean Claude Toran ("Next to Nature": heavy breathing here), the Isley Brothers ("Sensuality"), Stanley Cowell ("Sienna: Welcome My Darling": beautiful little jazz interlude, piano over guitar, I think), Roy Ayers ("Gotta Find a Lover": vocal restores the flow here, but the note the vibes solo), Gino Vannelli ("Wheels of Life"). Mostly soft. B+
  • Nina Simone: Nina Simone's Finest Hour (1964-66 [2000], Verve). Usually filed under jazz, but usually ignored by jazz guides, she doesn't really fit anywhere, and I find her work perplexing and more than a little bit annoying. I'm hard pressed to tell you why I find "Wild Is the Wind" so dislikable yet "I Put a Spell on You," similarly paced and even more string-laden, impresses me -- better song, of course. "Work Song" is first rate -- fits her like a glove. Most of these pieces have a stripped down, live feel: good showcase for her piano, OK for her deep, striking voice. But the material drags down quite a bit, and thuds at the end. B-
  • Bill Withers: Still Bill (1972 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). One thing I've noticed with all of the Withers Best-Ofs is that the good stuff is front-loaded: even though Columbia picked up rights to Withers' Sussex recordings, they always seemed to favor their own recordings, which were never as good. "Lean on Me" is hardly fair comparison, even within this record -- it'd be like trying to evaluate Every Picture Tells a Story on the basis of "Maggie May." But "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?" and "Use Me" are typical of this album, and they're as good as anyone ever really needs to get. A
  • Bill Withers: Menagerie (1977 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). The problem with Withers' best-ofs starts with his switch from Sussex to Columbia in 1975, and this is on the wrong side of the divide. But "Lovely Day" is a good single, and much of this has a nice, easy feel to it. "She Wants To (Get On Down)" is just groove, and rote at that. "Let Me Be the One You Need" is an eloquent ballad, but swathed in strings and forced to boot. This is the tail-end of Withers' career, and while it's far from bad, it's not far from mediocre. B


Apr 2003 Jun 2003