Rhapsody Streamnotes: February 3, 2012

Mostly 2011 releases below, fishing for obscure releases that might turn into surprises, mostly coming up empty. Last year I did two columns in this time period, one mid-January and another in early February, and found a long list of relatively obscure finds: 7L & Esoteric, Calle 13, Chromeo, Das Racist, Girl Talk, Henry Clay People, Lower Dens, OFF!, Rakaa, Lars Vaular, John Zorn's Interzone. OK, Das Racist and Girl Talk weren't that obscure, but they involved the extra work of tracking down downloads. And Tatum tipped me off to Calle 13, Chromeo, and OFF! But my point remains: post-EOY-list finds this year have been hard to come by. In fact, the album cover column would have been empty this time, but for: two 2012 releases, one 2011 regrade, one compilation of 1990s material I hoisted from Recycled Goods, and one previously unreleased item from 1993 that I would normally have held for Recycled Goods.

One theory I entertained was that I'm afraid I'm a bit more shy this year when it comes to elevating a record over the A- cusp. But below I only have five B+(***) from last year (Jack Ruby, Klezmatics, Nacho Picasso, Sandwell District, and Skull Defekts), wheras in last year's two columns I had 18 (Akala, Black Angels, Care Bears on Fire [2], Das Racist, Deadbeat, Disappears, Extra Lens, Far East Movement, Goldfrapp, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kno, Parralox, Skyzoo & Illmind, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Standard Fare, Marty Stuart, and Weekend). The ratio is, if not similar, at least not improbable.

Obviously, number have something to do with the difference: my two columns last year netted 110 records, compared to 51 below. (Although I did 87 in early January this year, vs. 46 in early January last year, so maybe the numbers should be 156 last year to 138 this. Factoring in early January changes the A- score from 11-0 to 18-5, and high B+ from 18-5 to 22-23, so maybe I am grading more cautiously and there is something to that A- cusp.)

I don't feel like I've been lazier or slacker this year. In fact, over the year 2011 the rated count is way up, so I'd like to think I've been more dilligent and pro-active and, as such, have less catching up to do. To some extent that is true, but it's also a crock. No matter how much you do, the mass of unsampled music out there is huge beyond comprehension. While it should eventually be subject to diminishing returns, I don't know of any way to objectively measure it. I will say, subjectively, that for me much of the marginal music is hip-hop and electronica: the mixtape movement has both made the music cheaper and sloppier, which led me to hedge a bit on a lot of well-regarded items (e.g., ASAP Rocky, Danny Brown, G-Side, Kembe X, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire); and electronica remains a genre of marginal distinctions, especially to someone who has no clue as to the difference between house and drum 'n' bass.

The other subjective point is that the more things I play, the less I care about them. I don't think that's gotten to the point of being poisonous, but that's the trendline. In 2010 my A-list ran to 122 (plus 10 picked up after freeze date). In 2011 it registered 121 on freeze date (now 123). That looks the same, but I listened to an extra 200 records in 2011, so I'm clamping down one way or another.

Oh well, on to 2012. The February columns have been running about 20% new year (10 of 51 below, 12 of 56 last year), whereas last year's March column jumped to 64% new year (34 of 53).

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 January 14. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Alabama Shakes: Alabama Shakes (2011, Rough Trade, EP): From Athens, AL, originally called themselves the Shakes. Debut, a short 4-song EP, straddling southern rock and retro soul, the latter winning out on the closer, a ballad called "You Ain't Alone," where they pull out the whole James Brown. B+(*)

Marsha Ambrosius: Late Nights & Early Mornings (2011, J): Neo-soul diva, formerly half of Floetry with her first solo album. Likes the high register for its light and fluff, and spend most of the album moaning and warbling up there, trying to be seductive but often disappointing. B-

Bhi Bhiman: Bhiman (2012, Boocoo Music): Second album, second-generation American, parents from Sri Lanka, but aside from name and looks he's about as assimilated as one can get -- if he had a drawl he could pass for country, but it would be a shame to tinker with his rich, creamy baritone. Plays guitar and sings. Songs have substance and detail. B+(***)

Black Milk/Danny Brown: Black and Brown (2011, Fat Beats, EP): Beats by Milk (Curtis Cross), with Brown rapping. Ten cuts, but only three cross the 3-minute mark, so it's short, but sharp and tart on both ends. B+(**) [bc]

Blow Your Head, Vol. 2: Dave Nada Presents Moombahton (2011, Mad Decent): Moombahton (aka Moom Moon), the derivation of which is at least highly suggested by the wet T-shirt on the cover, draws on reggaeton, knocks it around, bangs it up, keeps it fun. B+(**)

Bomb the Music Industry!: Vacation (2011, Really): Punk group from Long Island, sixth album since 2005. First half or more is mostly plainspoken and catchy, rising to a singalong crescendo, but tails off toward the end as the songs lose focus and break up. Rhapsody stops after 13 tracks, dropping two slabs of silence and some hidden something. B+(*)

Buraka Som Sistema: Komba (2011, Enchufada): Angolan group, founded in Lisbon, where they've mostly gone native, packing electrobeats and raps -- well, many in English, so maybe they've gone world instead, at least giving it a beat. B+(**)

Cauldron: Burning Fortune (2011, Earache): Metal band from Toronto, formed in 2006 (although AMG credits them with an unrelated 1999 album). I bothered with this because Chuck Eddy picked it as his top album of 2011 -- he seems to have relapsed into his metal ways, but roughly one of each ten down to 100 is jazz, and one or two are country(-ish). Can't say this is very good, but it is exceptionally tolerable: vocals are clear, guitar is clean, bass provides the essential drive. B+(*)

Jimmy Cliff: Sacred Fire EP (2011, Collective Sounds, EP): The long-lost reggae star gets a new lease, his tendency to go soft shaped up by producer Tim Armstrong (Rancid), starting off with the obvious (at least to Armstrong) cover of "Guns of Brixton." Three more songs, including the too obvious Dylan cover, before returning with a remix. B+(**)

Dennis Coffey: Dennis Coffey (2011, Strut): Detroit guitarist, had his heyday 1969-78 straddling psychedelia and funk with a series of what I gather were instrumental albums. First record since 1990, an opportunity to reiterate his career at age 70. Couple vocals accentuate the R&B, including one by Mayer Hawthorne, but mostly the guitar rools. B+(*)

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (2012, Columbia): Hardly sung, the lyrics plainly stated surrounded by an aura of female voices on melodies effortlessly recycled from everything he's ever done. Seems so easy, and probably is, which doesn't mean anyone can do it. A- [cd]

Mikal Cronin: Mikal Cronin (2011, Trouble in Mind): Singer-songwriter, has bounced around several indie bands since 2005, goes eponymous for his debut, layering on vocal harmonies with a skin of slickness I haven't managed to penetrate. Listenable, and maybe then some, if you're into that sort of thing. B

Dawes: Nothing Is Wrong (2011, ATO): Second album by this LA band, often said to possess a "Laurel Canyon sound," by which they mean various late-1960s stars they don't actually sound anything like -- hell, they're not even a decent Eagles imitation, nor Poco, nor even J.D. Souther (well, maybe J.D. Souther). C+

Lana Del Rey: Born to Die (2012, Interscope): Got some notice last year with a single called "Video Games" -- I played it after noticing it on year-end lists, but it's more appealing here, in what would be her debut album if she didn't already have a 2010 digital download called Lane Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant -- her original name is Elizabeth Grant. I guess you'd call this electropop, but she has a torch song voice -- old way beyond her years -- and the synths would rather drape her in strings than in beats. Several songs make a strong impression, but others confuse as she adopts a form that thrives in perpetual youth yet she's so done with anything reminiscent of sweet sixteen. B+(**)

Brett Dennen: Loverboy (2011, Dualtone): California singer-songwriter, fourth studio album since 2004 plus some other stuff. High voice with an ingratiating twist, helps when he gets an upbeat tune like "Can't Stop Thinking" or his underdog single "Comeback Kid (That's My Dog)" -- although "Song for Leaving" may prove the exception. B+(*)

Ani DiFranco: Which Side Are You On? (2010-11 [2012], Righteous Babe): Hers, no doubt about it. In refocusing on politics she doesn't revert to folkie form, doesn't get angry, doesn't preach (much). If anything, she seems happier, like she's learning life's lessons as one properly should. A-

DJ Rashad: Just a Taste, Vol. 1 (2010 [2011], Ghettophiles): Detroit techno guy; Discogs treats this as his first album, but there are lots of Singles, EPs, DJ Mixes, and, of course, Miscellaneous. Title is too prophetic, for that's all you get even as he loosens up and gets danceable, and the promise of more isn't reassuring. No doubt he can do more of this, but does he doubt he'll be able to think up another title? B

The D: Both Ways Open Jaws (2011, Six Degrees): French-Finnish duo, formed in Paris, with singer Olivia Merliahti and Dan Levy -- both described as multi-instrumentalists -- and some drummer. Name pronounced "dough," like the note. Wikipedia shows them playing guitar and bass respectively, but they also go in for keybs, and that's where they can get shlocky. She sings in English, but I'm not much good at following. Like most things one doesn't understand, it's best when they pick up the beat. B+(**)

Drexciya: Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller, Vol. 1 (1992-96 [2011], Clone Classic Cuts): Detroit techno group, Gerald Donald and James Stinson, worked until Stinson died in 2002. This is the first of four planed compilations, picking through early EPs and singles, mostly with water themes. The electronics go blip, not much sustain or ambience, just picking out short and sweet themes, bouncing along. A-

Fred Eaglesmith: 6 Volts (2012, Bluewater Music): Canadian singer-songwriter, so straightforward and low tech we file him under folk. Here he's as low-key as ever. B+(*)

Kathleen Edwards: Voyageur (2010-11 [2012], Zo): Canadian singer-songwriter: when she first appeared in 2003 she was touted as the next Lucinda Williams, but I don't hear any of that in her fourth album here. Perhaps the transformation can be attributed to co-producer Justin Vernon (you know, Bon Iver), who managed to craft a sound that is slick, sensuous, and utterly disposable. B

Charlotte Gainsbourg: Stage Whisper (2010 [2011], Elektra): Daughter of a legendary French singer, born in London, has a spotty recording career with something of a breakthrough with 2009's IRM. This follows up quickly with outtakes and live tracks, your basic odds and sods that she's not distinctive enough to pull off. Does have a nice take on Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." B

Girls' Generation: Oh! (2010, SM Entertainment): Korean girl teen pop group, nine deep, big stars in South Korea, where they are nicknamed SNSD, short for their Korean name So Nyuh Shi Dae. Discography is messy with both Korean and Japanese series and various repackagings within each, but this looks like their second Korean studio album. More English than not, lots of fun until they do one called "Forever" where the beat surrenders to the strings and they go all Glee on you. They bounce right back, but it's hard to trust them after that. B+(**)

Girls' Generation: The Boys (2011 [2012], Universal): Third studio album, possibly with different versions in Korea and Japan (where it was repackaged from a rerecording of their first album, the key unifying component the new single); reportedly the start of their world campaign, but still only available as an import here. I liked the choppy beat of their early work better than the slicker and smoother vibe here. The single is fine, but the passel of remixes at the end add little (other than a quote from the Waitresses -- you know, "I know what boys like . . ."). Probably some sort of disposable "bonus disk" but hard to know from here. B+(*)

Guided by Voices: Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012, GBV): Alt-rock band/vehicle for Robert Pollard, who likes short, not especially tuneful pieces and cranks them out by the dozen -- 21 songs on this 41:44 album, their 16th studio album (or 15th) since 1987 (not counting all sorts of things, like 16 EPs). I was surprised to find this topping all January albums in my 2012 metacritic file, so gave it a spin and I'm still surprised: odd little song fragments, quaint lyrics, some guitar froth and/or grunge, just disjointed enough to remind me of the Move without hooks, or the Bonzo Dog Band without wit. I'd be surprised if their fans have heard either. B

Van Hunt: What Were You Hoping For? (2011, Godless Hotspot): Black (ergo soul) singer-songwriter, cut two albums for Capitol 2004-06 which marked him as a comer and a has-been. Tries to regroup here with jerky rhythms, odd time signatures, and odder lyrics, which do add something. B+(*)

Jack Ruby: Jack Ruby (1974-77 [2011], UgExplode, EP): Proto-no wave group with Contortions bassist George Scott, a singer named Robin Hall, and some others I don't recognize; four studio tracks from 1974 when their grind and random crash noises were ahead of their time, and four rehearsal tracks from 1977 after they had learned to twiddle the amplifier knobs -- a quantum leap forward, at least until the amp started to bite back. B+(***)

The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble: I Forsee the Dark Ahead, If I Stay (2006-11 [2011], Parallel Corners): Dutch group -- the scattered vocals are unpleasant in various ways -- strikes me as more like electronica than jazz although they may be thinking that the occasional horn makes a difference. Handful of albums since 2006, collected these tracks at various live venues, so presumably this works as a sampler, sometimes cancelling itself out. B [bc]

The Klezmatics: Live at Town Hall (2006 [2011], Soundbrush, 2CD): New York's klezmer supergroup throw out all the stops in this 20th anniversary concert, released five years later for the silver. A bit of everything, works as a retrospective, a best-of (although I could do without their gospel phase), but at warp speed, more than once sliding off the rails. B+(***)

Le Butcherettes: Sin Sin Sin (2010 [2011], Rodriguez Lopez Productions): Mexican group, although singer-songwriter-guitarist Teri Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender) was born in Denver. First album, more new wave than punk, especially if you factor in the Russian-like shtick at the end which reminds me of Lene Lovich. Group name doesn't quite parse, but may be appropriate for a group that doesn't either. B+(*)

The Little Willies: For the Good Times (2010-11 [2012], Milking Bull): Second album from Norah Jones' country music project, six years after the first -- Richard Julian also sings, but most of the value comes from Jones. Highlight: "Fist City." Been there, done that: "Jolene." B+(*)

Maria Muldaur: Steady Love (2011, Stony Plain): Old voices make for truer blues voices, and pushing seventy the former jug band sweetheart is making the most of her mileage. She doesn't write -- not that her ad lib on the state of the world in "Please Send Me Someone to Love" isn't priceless -- so her records rise or fall on her song-picking inspiration, as with her Depression-era Garden of Joy. "Why Are People Like That?" hits that vein, but too many God songs don't. B+(**)

The Men: Leave Home (2011, Sacred Bones): Rhapsody labels them as Dance Pop which must be some confusion, as this debut album sounds like harshly metallic punk, which I suppose is what AMG means by post-hardcore. Not much at first, but eventually cohered and closed with a catchy metallic grind. B+(*)

Randy Montana: Randy Montana (2011, Mercury Nashville): Country singer, first album but got some notice as a songwriter before. Birth name is Randy Schlappi, but his father performed as Billy Montana, so I guess he has a right (as well as a reason). Has a voice, works the cowboy shtick, hit the guitar hard at the end of each bar; otherwise seems like a reasonable guy. Line from "It's Gone": "I'm just trying to make the most of what I have/it ain't that pretty but it ain't half bad." About like his record. B+(*)

My Morning Jacket: Circuital (2011, ATO): Soft rock band from Kentucky (although they could just as well be from anywhere), a steady producer since 1999. Too pleasant to get worked up over, but also too uninteresting. B-

Nacho Picasso: For the Glory (2011, self-released): Seattle rapper, has an easy underground flow over ordinary synthbeats. Talks a bit much about himself, and throws up plenty of red flags, no doubt some for camouflage. B+(***) [bc]

David Nail: The Sound of A Million Dreams (2011, MCA Nashville): Nashville country singer, second album, only see one and a couple fractions of writing credits. Seems like a nice enough guy, but the music keeps crashing down and his voice winds up sounding a little mousey. B

Willie Nelson: Remember Me, Vol. 1 (2011, R&J): No idea what the back story is to this 14-cut covers album, but Nelson can tackle pretty much anything, including signature songs from George Jones and Merle Haggard. The one I hadn't heard in the longest time is "This Old House," which he thankfully took a bit of the shine off -- as he did "Sixteen Tons." Still, the only song he's totally comfortable with is "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" -- he must have that one on twenty albums by now, most live so no telling how many times he's played it. The others feel quickly fried up, with a full band that hemns him in too tightly. B+(*)

James Pants: James Pants (2011, Stones Throw): Born James Singleton, plays everything (mostly synth) in his DIY dub chamber. Most clearly hits a '50s rock 'n' roll vibe on "Darlin'" but other pieces have similar effects, or slouch toward lounge exotica, but far estranged in time and space. B+(*)

Schoolboy Q: Setbacks (2011, Top Dawg): Matthew Hanley, cut an early single called "Black Hippy" which seems to be his home base even when he gets high and lets his mind fantasize gangsta. B+(**)

Random Axe: Random Axe (2011, Duck Down Music): A Detroit-Brooklyn group effort, with Black Milk the best known of three MCs (Guilty Simpson and Sean Price are the others). Underground beats, ghetto rhymes, dense and tough, rather grim. B+(**)

Sandwell District: Feed-Forward (2010 [2011], Sandwell District): Not much info. RA treats Sandwell District as a label, not an artist. Discogs lists members David Summer and Karl O'Connor, and credits both with percussion, but that's about it. This came out first as a double-LP set, then there was an eponymous CD with basically the same material on it, so I could just as well be reviewing Sandwell District. The beats are calming, seductive, marking time with an aura of synth ambience. Seems easy. B+(***)

The Skull Defekts: Peer Amid (2009 [2011], Thrill Jockey): Swedish group, post-rock or whatever, which means long instrumental vamps with occasional words -- "In Majestic Drag" is a good example of the former, and "Fragrant Nimbus" the latter. The one I'm not so sure of is called "The Gospel of the Skull," where they get a bit too Pentecostal for my druthers. B+(***)

Patrick Stump: Soul Punk (2011, Island): Solo project of singer from Chicago emo group Fall Out Boy -- supposedly some sort of big thing but I've never bothered with them. Ideal here is to sing soul music with a punk kick. Better as an idea than as realized: not devoid of fun, but beats are clunky and Stump has trouble emoting with his squeal. B-

John Talabot: Fin (2012, Permanent Vacation): DJ from Barcelona, Spain; first album after a series of 12-inch singles. Evidently there's a whole school to describe this sort of thing, but what I know is that the beats are just tense enough to pull you along, and the more than occasional vocals add something. B+(***)

Tove Styrke: Tove Styrke (2010 [2011], Epic): Swedish electro-pop sensation, a few days shy of 19 when this appeared, which puts her on track to become the next Robyn if she improves as much as Robyn did over her own teen sensation years. Problem is no undeniable songs in a genre (dance pop) that trade on them. None unlistenable, or undanceable, either. B+(*)

Tha Grimm Teachaz: There's a Sitaution on the Homefront (1993 [2011], Breakfast): PMDF (Prince Midnight Dark Force), KDz (Kenny Dennis aka Tha Killa Deacon), and "seldom seen producer" DJ Koufie cut and shelved this in 1993 -- some or all may have something to do with Serengeti. Runs short (38:56), but the rough and tumble beats and rolling rhymes get conscious midway through, turning into lines like "headphones ain't nothing but handcuffs for the ears." A-

Amon Tobin: ISAM (2011, Ninja Tune): Drum 'n' bass producer from Brazil, at least ten albums since 1997, uses harsh and jumpy synth sounds which eventually he manages to pull together into interesting patterns. B+(*)

The Twilight Singers: Dynamite Steps (2011, Sub Pop): Greg Dulli's Afghan Whigs spinoff -- talk about a group I haven't given the slightest thought to in years. Record has a grand sweep to it -- majestic with a seemingly effortless flow -- looking back to an older age of arena rock I've never cared for. I'm duly impressed, but not all that intrigued. B

Tycho: Dive (2011, Ghostly International): Scott Hansen, from San Francisco, several releases since 2002. He offers an easy-going but quite lush guitar-laced electronica, brighter than ambient but with a similar intent to fill the background. B+(*)

Hype Williams: One Nation (2011, Hippos in Tanks): UK DJ, I presume, with three albums, four singles/EPs, and various other things listed at Discogs, but the only bio I can find under the name is that of an American hip-hop video producer. Quaintly ambient electronics with occasional spoken word, all nice and neat. B+(*)


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

  • Dark Ages: Can America Survive? (2011, Sorry State)
  • Escort: Escort (2011, Tirk)
  • The Fall: Ersatz GB (2011, Cherry Red)
  • Luke Haines: Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on the Wrestling of the 1970s and Early '80s (2011, Fantastic Plastic)
  • Heidi: Jackathon (2011, Get Physical)
  • The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble: From the Stairwell (2011, Denovali)
  • Lone: Echolocations (2011, R&S)
  • Mr. Dream: Trash Hit (2011, God Mode)
  • Pinch and Shackleton: Pinch and Shackleton (2011, Honest Jon's)
  • The Thirteenth Assembly: Station Direct (2011, Important)
  • Total Control: Henge Beat (2011, Iron Lung)
  • Zs: New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion! (2011, Social Registry)

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:

Destroyer: Kaputt (2011, Merge): Like Magnetic Fields or Mountain Goats, a singer-songwriter hiding behind a group name, a tactic that kept Dan Bejar obscure for eight records until this fancy piece of quasi-pop art; such a fawning vocalist, and so tarted up he reminded me of Sufjan Stevens at first. More exposure ends speculation that this could grow on me, but it hasn't turned annoying either -- a mere curiosity. [Was: B+(***)] B+(*)

Pistol Annies: Hell on Heels (2011, Columbia Nashville): More than half of the songs hit their targets square and solid, at at least one of them isn't by Miranda Lambert -- Angaleena Presley's "The Hunter's Wife." Lambert's got the finest voice too, so you wonder how long she'll keep this group going. But the girls are probably more fun than her dull hunk of a husband, so I'm hoping for them. [Was: B+(**)] A- [cd]

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods (note: Drexciya and Jack Ruby, hoisted above, were originally published in Recycled Goods):

Marion Brown: Geechee Recollections/Sweet Earth Flying (1973-74 [2012], Impulse): Saxophonist, alto first but played a lot of soprano, cut his remarkable early albums for ESP-Disk in the mid-1960s, but rarely had a steady label -- one Impulse in 1966, one ECM in 1970, two more Impulses here, everything else on minor foreign labels up to his death in 2010, with some of his best records duos with Mal Waldron. [1] Wrapped around a piece of poetry by Jean Toomer (spoken by Bill Hasson), an understated piece of chopped and clipped rhythm, rarely drawing out the leader's sax or whatever it is Leo Smith allegedly does. [2] Two side-long pieces, one centered around another Jean Toomer poem, with a twin-piano (sometimes electric, or organ) lineup -- Muhal Richard Abrams and Paul Bley, no less -- and Steve McCall (again) on drums, but more focus on the sax, the soprano especially striking. B+(***)

Mel Brown: The Wizard/Blues for We (1968-69 [2012], Impulse): Blues guitarist, best known for working with Bobby "Blue" Bland. Teamed with Herb Ellis for a soul jazz album in 1967 called Chicken Fat, and that got him a couple more shots. [1] Second guitarist here was Terry Evans, but they rarely do anything interesting enough to keep you from wondering when will the singer show up. Organist is so indistinct the label didn't bother to give the credit. [2] Even fewer credits here, although the singer on "Twist and Shout" is reported to be Brown himself -- a mistake he doesn't repeat. Chintzy pop like "Ob-La-Dee, Ob-La-Da" even more rote than its predecessor, although eventually you become enured to such things. C+

Alice Coltrane: Huntington Ashram Monastery/World Galaxy (1969-71 [2012], Impulse): Ne Alice McLeod, a pianist from Detroit, married John Coltrane in 1965, joined his group, and recorded her own albums after his death in 1967. [1] Opens with a typical Coltrane riff wrapped in harp, a clever effect not least because it isn't overdone. Most of what follows is piano trio, with Ron Carter and Rashied Ali slightly on edge, and dense, fleet, and eloquent work by the leader. [2] Opens and closes with iconic Coltrane pieces -- "My Favorite Things" and "A Love Supreme" -- surrounding three "Galaxy" titles with Indian references. Mostly dense layers of organ, harp, and strings, perhaps meant for meditation but a cloying backdrop, although Frank Lowe and Leroy Jenkins manage to break through with an isolated solo apiece. B+(*)

Sonny Criss: The Joy of Sax/Warm and Sonny (1976 [2012], Impulse): An alto saxophonist, picked up bebop in Charlie Parker's immediate wake, recorded in erratic but impressive spurts -- 1956 for Imperial, 1966-69 for Prestige, 1975-76 for Muse -- but his last two albums for Impulse served him poorly before his tragic death at age 50. [1] The synths, strings, and electric pulse are bogus trimmings, but at least this focuses on the sax, and his appeal is strong and clear. Two Stevie Wonder songs, one with a tolerable vocal. [2] More keybs, more synths, more backing horns, songs like "The Way We Were" and "Sweet Summer Breeze" and EWF's "That's the Way of the World" -- goop that the alto sax can only occasionally rise above, and rarely does. C+

Chico Hamilton: El Chico/The Further Adventures of El Chico (1965-66 [2012], Impulse): Drummer from Los Angeles, led his own bands from 1955 on, often featuring flute and/or guitar for a light, airy sound, often with Latin percussion. [1] Floats along nicely with Willie Bobo and Victor Pantoja spicing up the percussion, opening up for tasty solos by guitarist Gabor Szabo, as well as flute and alto sax by Sadao Watanabe. [2] Ten cuts, only three topping 4:00, with scattered lineups, some like outtakes, some dabbling in saccharine pop hits ("Daydream," "Monday Monday"). Gabor Szabo and Charlie Mariano have some nice moments, but only Clark Terry's got his mojo working. B-

John Handy: Hard Work/Carnival (1976-77 [2012], Impulse): An alto saxophonist, originally from Dallas but long based in San Francisco; perhaps best known for his stint with Mingus, although his 1965 Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival has its fans. He has a couple dozen widely scattered albums, some bop, crossover, world fusion, unified only by his sweet tone and disposition. [1] Swept up in Impulse's crossover phase, Handy works hard to keep the sax flying high and his undistinguished band's funk deep in the groove. And while vocals usually ruin these things, he makes them work too. [2] Intended to be his funk party album, filled up with even more keybs and congas and vocals, the it works best when they keep the structure clean, as with "Watch Your Money Go" -- a blues chant lit up by Handy's soaring sax solo. And on ballads like "Make Her Mine" Handy's vocals are a pleasant surprise -- he's much more pleasing than, to pick an apposite example, George Benson. B

Freddie Hubbard: The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard/The Body and the Soul (1962-63 [2012], Impulse): Trumpeter, emerged fully formed in 1960 as a top-notch hard bop player who could play anywhere, even avant-garde slots. He mostly headlined on Blue Note, but for a five-year stretch he showed up everywhere, and was rarely less than stellar. [1] This couldn't have taken long to arrange: six young hard bop stars -- John Gilmore the most interesting choice -- stretching out on two standards and three briefer Hubbard tunes. "Caravan" is crackling, but "Summertime" gets lost and drags a bit. [2] I suppose Bob Thiele's idea here was to feature Hubbard in a swishy orchestral setting like Gil Evans concocted for Miles Davis, but Wayne Shorter's charts are a wet blanket for everyone. The three (of nine) cuts where Shorter just plays are sharper but still prone to clutter, although occasionally you get a glimpse of how much talent is wasted here (e.g., Eric Dolphy and Cedar Walton). B-

Keith Jarrett: Mysteries/Shades (1975 [2012], Impulse): A tour de force in the early 1970s, bouncing between stellar quartets on both sides of the Atlantic, cranking out the best-selling solo piano album of all time. By late 1975 his American Quartet -- Dewey Redman on tenor sax, Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Motian on drums -- had picked up a fifth, percussionist Guilherme Franco. [1] Four cuts are framed by Redman's intensely expressive sax, with the pianist so abstract you'd think he had finally found a way to one-up Motian. In between, Jarrett picks up a Pakistani flute on "Flame" and literally breaks out of his world. [2] Same group, may even be from the same session, but it's hard to tell which takes are out and in -- except, that is, for "Diatribe," which is as far out as this group ever got, rough and raging, something you always knew Redman had in him. A-

The J.B.'s & Fred Wesley: The Lost Album (1972 [2011], Hip-O Select): James Brown's band taking it easy under the direction of Fred Wesley, whose trombone leads get their fair share of time; the instrumentals don't go the extra mile they need to, but a couple of vocal slots grease the skids, even if it's just jive. B+(*)

The Lijadu Sisters: Danger (1976 [2011], Knitting Factory): Identical twins from Nigeria, considered Afrobeat which as much as anything means they sound like 1960s garage rockers, at least from the keyb down, although they try to synch their voices into something more haunting. B+(*)

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady/Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963 [2012], Impulse): A brief stopover in the great bassist's career: the other album he did for Impulse was his solo Mingus on Piano -- his most minimal of recordings, whereas these two Bob Thiele productions are his most maximal. [1] A suite for eleven musicians, not technically a big band but in Mingus's hands a huge sprawling monster. I've always found the "love, pain, and passioned revolt" of the finale a bit too chaotic, but many fans rank this as his masterpiece. [2] Basically the same large band, with Booker Ervin and Eric Dolphy added to the reed section, but deprecated a bit because he tends to rework old material. Still, with such a band, and such material -- including key pieces from my pick for his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um -- why the fuck not? A-

Blue Mitchell: African Violet/Summer Soft (1977-78 [2012], Impulse, 2CD): One of the great hard bop trumpeters who peaked in the early 1960s, less flashy than Lee Morgan, more reliable than Booker Little, but like them died young -- at 49, just not as young. He did manage to keep working steady in the 1970s, recording more than a dozen albums nobody seems to think much of, most with "blue" or "funk" in the title. [1] Hard to fault the trumpet here, or the sax when Harold Land lends a hand, but they're wrapped up in synths that none of their rhythm options can redeem, nor can they do much with the unjazzable Stevie Wonder. [2] The title song another Stevie Wonder song turned into a gaudy piece of disco trash; nor does moving the beat to the one help much, nor does focusing on the trumpet. C

Oliver Nelson and Friends: Happenings/Soulful Brass (1966-68 [2012], Impulse): A saxophonist from St. Louis, Nelson started recording in 1959 and was prolific until his death in 1975, mostly arranging big band sessions, some under his own name -- Blues and the Abstract Truth is his masterpiece -- and many not. The "Friends" here reflect co-credits but his hand is unmistakable. [1] Originally credited to "Hank Jones & Oliver Nelson" but also "featuring Clark Terry," whose big-band trumpet is seamless, but whose vocal on "Winchester Cathedral" is the record's great novelty moment. Jones offers a fine piano feature, but he spends most of the album playing electric harpsichord in arrangements that are remarkably polished but also corny and occasionally ridiculous. [2] The credit here reads "Oliver Nelson & Steve Allen": Allen seamlessly picks up the electric harpsichord so it takes a while before you recognize how much shlockier his is -- specifically, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," magnificent even here. Allen might have been deemed a Renaissance Man but TV exposure made it look like all the things he could do were some kind of camp -- and that's what he winds up playing off of here. Nelson, of course, makes the joke even grander, not because he has a sense of humor but because he always makes everything grander. B+(*)

Howard Roberts: Antelope Freeway/Equinox Express Elevator (1971-72 [2012], Impulse): Guitarist, born in Phoenix, played in West Coast groups eventually winding up in Seattle. Has a light discography, including one 1966 album on Verve (The Velvet Groove) and one 1978 album on Concord (The Real Howard Roberts), as well as these two. [1] Snatches of radio noise and talk put this on the highway, while the metallic guitar suggests steel-belted radials, tenaciously grabbing the road through whatever keyb sleet and slick comes their way. [2] Haven't been able to track down credits, but the guitar is more like Roberts' old pal Barney Kessel than McLaughlin or Hendrix, and it weaves its way over electric keybs that are pleasant and sometimes surprise you. B+(*)

Sonny Stitt: Now!/Salt and Pepper (1963 [2012], Impulse): A contemporary of Charlie Parker, with ideas so similar he was often accused of copying, but he lasted much longer and recorded extensively, often playing tenor instead of alto sax, often engaging in blistering cutting contests. [1] A very typical Stitt quartet with the impeccable Hank Jones on piano, Al Lucas on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums, never rushed or frenetic but solid all around. [2] With Jones and Johnson again, Milt Hinton taking over bass, and Duke Ellington's tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves sitting in; Stitt is more deferential than usual, making this a session to savor his underrecorded guest. B+(***)

Clark Terry: The Happy Horns of Clark Terry/It's What's Happenin' (1964-67 [2012], Impulse): Trumpet player, came up in the bop era and made his first great album with Thelonious Monk, but got a good grounding in swing working both for Count Basie and Duke Ellington. [1] What makes him happy is playing Ellington (and Carney and Tizol and Hodges), especially when Ben Webster sits in. [2] Subtitled The Varitone Sound of Clark Terry, this quartet session was meant to demo Selmer's Varitone amplifier on trumpet -- the device, a sound processesor, was more commonly used with saxophones. The gear doesn't get much of a workout -- the instrumental pieces are uncommonly nice, but "Electric Mumbles" plays games with Terry's voice, and his rap on "Take the 'A' Train" goes further. B+(**)

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo: The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 (1972-80 [2004], Soundway): Early material by a still extant -- despite various name changes -- group from the thin sliver of land between Nigeria and Ghana, offering bits of highlife and afrobeat without defining either. The early cuts are sonically dull, but even there they start to win you over, and when the sound brightens up they're even more effective, but never quite what you'd call Tout Puissant. B+(***)

Michael White: Spirit Dance/Pneuma (1972 [2012], Impulse): Violinist, had an angle on world fusion when it first emerged in the early 1970s, recording five 1971-74 Impulse albums plus side shots with Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, but hasn't recorded much since. [1] Scattered pieces assay Latin and African themes, the "Samba" dull and repetitive, but elsewhere the percussion works and the violin cuts harshly against the grain in what could be avant as well as exotic; "Praise Inocence" keys off an out-of-tune kiddie choir, but winds up with pianist Ed Kelly reinventing Dollar Brand. [2] The first side a five-part suite lost in space. Interest picks up on the second side along with the beat. B


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