Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Music Week

June archive (in progress).

Music: Current count 35664 [35610] rated (+54), 211 [214] unrated (-3).

Ran a day late in posting this. The cutoff was on schedule, late Sunday evening, but I got distracted by the busy work noted below.

More mid-year best albums lists (including country and hip-hop specialists, and one short jazz list):

If I had to construct a jazz list at the moment, it would be something like (scraped from my Year 2021 list):

  1. Sons of Kemet: Black to the Future (Impulse!)
  2. James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet: Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms)
  3. Magnet Animals: Fake Dudes (RareNoise)
  4. Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor: Long Tall Sunshine (Not Two)
  5. Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die Live (International Anthem)
  6. Dave Rempis/Tomeka Reid/Joshua Abrams/Tim Daisy/Tyler Damon: The Covid Tapes: Solos, Duos, & Trios (Aerophonic, 2CD)
  7. Ivo Perelman Trio: Garden of Jewels (Tao Forms)
  8. Aki Takase/Christian Weber/Michael Griener: Auge (Intakt)
  9. Wadada Leo Smith: Sacred Ceremonies (TUM, 3CD)
  10. Irène Schweizer/Hamid Drake: Celebration (Intakt)

If we were running a Jazz Critics Poll at the moment, only my top two are likely to wind up top ten, with outside shots for Jaimie Branch, Wadada Leo Smith, and maybe one of the Intakt pianists (neither has placed high before, but the label gets attention). Other big names you might see: Miguel Zenón (A-), Vijay Iyer (***), Charles Lloyd (***), Thumbscrew (***), Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders (**), although my guesses are increasingly suspect as you go down my list. Is Joe Lovano (with or without Dave Douglas) a cause célèbre any more? Does the other 3-CD Wadada Leo Smith box overcome its solo trumpet limits? Has anyone actually heard the 10-CD William Parker box? I haven't, although I did finally check out the sampler (below). I'm not seeing much else I haven't heard yet that strikes me as likely contenders. But I should take a look through here: several things that interest me (at least) on just the first page.

I've added the records mentioned to my tracking file (haven't tracked down all the labels and dates yet), so it now has more unrated (442) than rated (328) records. I haven't tried to compile the lists, and haven't gotten very far in checking them out, although a few albums I noticed there made it into this week's list.

We recently watched 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, an 8-episode Apple TV+ documentary series made by Asif Kapadia in England, based on David Hepworth's book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 the Year That Rock Exploded (see: Rotten Tomatoes, no Wikipedia?; reviews in Guardian, Under the Radar, and a rather pissy piece in the New York Times). Reviews inevitably focus on who got included or left out, and whether 1971 was really more important than 1970 or 1972 (or 1967 or 1977), but I don't want to get mired in that (although one should note that they not only featured albums released in 1971, but also singles that were recorded in 1971 but didn't appear on albums until 1972 (like Exile on Main Street and Ziggy Stardust). [PS: I did review the soundtrack tie-in product after my cutoff, but decided to slip it in here. And yes, I did comment on what was and wasn't included.] I will say that there was some remarkable footage. For me, it was most interesting to recheck my memories and nostalgia. In my case, 1971 was something of a low point in my interest in music, which had been waning during several years of self-imposed confinement, and was rekindled once I went to college in St. Louis in 1972, although I was very much aware of key events, like Nixon's escalation in Vietnam, Kent State, and Attica. And while I didn't notice much music in real time in 1971, I made up for it in the next several years, as I found that music was the common denominator of the society I was struggling to enter. Hence, there was very little in the series that I didn't know, or at least catch up on over the next few years (which makes it not 50 years old to me, but 45+).

As this is 50 years after 1971, we're constantly running into anniversary reminders. (The one I'm most looking forward to is the release on HBO Max of my nephew Mike's documentary, Betrayal at Attica; see notices in Realscreen and C21 Media.) The most pedestrian of these tie-ins is the appearance of "best of 1971" album lists, like this one (the first I saw) at Yardbarker: Albums turning 50 in 2021 that everyone should listen to. These are 1971 releases. My grades are in brackets.

  1. Janis Joplin: Pearl [A-]
  2. Carole King: Tapestry [A-]
  3. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers [A]
  4. Paul & Linda McCartney: Ram [B-]
  5. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On [A-]
  6. Carpenters: Carpenters [C]
  7. Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story [A]
  8. Funkadelic: Maggot Brain [B+]
  9. The Who: Who's Next [A+]
  10. The Bee Gees: Trafalgar [C-]
  11. Dolly Parton: Coat of Many Colors [A-]
  12. Billy Joel: Cold Spring Harbor [B]
  13. Elton John: Madman Across the Water [B-]
  14. MC5: High Time [B+(***)]
  15. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV [A]
  16. Sly and the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On [A]
  17. Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson [B+(**)]
  18. David Bowie: Hunky Dory [A]
  19. John Prine: John Prine [A]
  20. John Lennon: Imagine [A+]

When I jotted that list down, I didn't have grades for 5 albums, so I scrambled to listen to them. Four were sensible decisions to have ignored, at least in an era where one actually had to buy albums. Reviews below.

Spin also has a better (and more obscurantist) 1971 list, 50 albums deep, so it catches some important titles missing from above, as well as dropping in more ordinary albums and a few genuine obscurities. Ones from their list I'd rate A- or better:

  1. The Stylistics: The Stylistics [A-]
  2. Curtis Mayfield: Roots [A-]
  3. Al Green: Gets Next to You [A]
  4. The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin: The Inner Mounting Flame [A]
  5. Joni Mitchell: Blue [A-]

I thought I might add a list of A-list albums they missed, then decided I should try my hand at compiling a fairly comprehensive annual list, like I've been compiling since 2002. That project got a little out of hand. It wasn't too hard to scan through my database for "1971" and pick out the actual releases, but most of my jazz records are listed by recording (as opposed to release) date, and I wanted to limit the list to actual (preferably US) releases that calendar year, so I had to do a lot of error checking. I also decided to go with original (preferably US) labels, whereas the database mostly had reissues. In some cases, I thought I should add notes contrasting the original releases with the reissues I actually listened to -- but I kept the database grades. I also decided to flag the jazz albums (J).

As I was error-checking, I added a section called "unheard records of some note." Obviously, there are thousands of 1971 releases that I haven't heard, so getting onto this list is pretty arbitrary. (Discogs has something like 120,000 1971 releases, but expect a lot of redundant entries for trivial differences, as well as tons of reissues from previous years. I started looking at the 12,000 jazz releases, and got about 25% into it.) While I was doing all this, I listened to a few 1971 albums I had missed, so I kept shuffling albums around.

A few quick observations:

  • The A/A+ lists are much longer than in recent years. Partly that's because those grades demand that records "stand the test of time," but also it's because these are records I've lived most of my life with.
  • On the other hand, the A- list is shorter, which reflects the fact that fewer albums were released back then. But also the share of jazz records is much smaller than in recent years (12/46, vs. about 50% in recent years). Other grade slots are similarly reduced.
  • The B+ category reflects albums graded before I started using the 1-3 star subdivisions. I've placed these after B+(*), but realistically they should be evenly distributed among the B+ grades.
  • The sharp fall off below B is, as it is today, the result of not bothering with records I didn't expect to like. It may also reflect the fact that I wasn't regularly keeping track of grades before 2000, so a number of records that I did listen to way back when never got graded.
  • I've kept the division between New Music and Reissues/Compilations/Vault Music, even though I don't have much to show for 1971. I've also loosened up the time requirements I've been using lately (10 years for vault music), especially where the artist has passed (Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane).

In theory, I could do this for other years, but looks like a lot of work. My guess is that 1970 would have a larger A-list, especially up top. Probably 1972 too. I started buying significant quantities of albums around 1974, so everything picks up from there, to about 1980. From then, the lists would slacken off, then pick up again around 1986, and more so when I started buying CDs. I started buying a lot of jazz and oldies c. 1995, and everything exploded when I started reviewing oldies in 2003 and jazz in 2004, and again when I started streaming around 2010. That finally made it cheap to listen to crap, and I've done plenty.

Jazz took a dive around 1970, aside from the fusion fad, which very few musicians showed any real skill at (Miles Davis, for sure, but not Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, who still passed as pretty big successes). Jazz started to rebound in the US in the 1990s, but as art had been saved by small labels in Europe and Japan, and in any case it remains a music of small niches (definitely plural), despite being enormously creative. The thing about 1967-72 was that a lot of the innovation in those years was genuinely popular: we listened to the same records, and they were a common bond. I grew up in that environment, but by the time we published Terminal Zone we were starting to plot the fragmentation. Like the real universe, it's never gotten smaller, nor easier.

One more week before we wrap June Streamnotes. It's a 5-week month, so the monthly file is likely to be a big one (currently 162 records). Don't know whether I'll do a Friday news/opinion post. Scratch file for that is currently bare. Got virtually no reaction last week.

Got both of the porch rail projects done, thanks largely to Max Stewart, who always seems to be able to bail me out when I get in over my head. I spent what seemed like a lot of money (including a $50 shipping charge), and I'll never do business with them (Simplified Building) again. The hardware fit very loosely and/or awkwardly to the tubing, which was heavy but unattractive. The "self-tapping" screws weren't up to the job. Their instructions were wrong several places, resulting in drilling some holes too big, others too small. First thing I ever bought off an ad in Facebook, and may be the last.

I have one more rail piece on order from Amazon (item had a very long lead time). Assuming it fits right, it should be much easier to install. Also bought some small grab bars to locate by the doors, so you can hold on with one hand while opening the heavy screen doors. They came late today, so I still have to install them, but they should be easy.

Lots more making life difficult, but occasionally we make a bit of progress.

New records reviewed this week:

Rodrigo Amado This Is Our Language Quartet: Let the Free Be Men (2017 [2021], Trost): Portuguese tenor saxophonist, group name refers not to Ornette Coleman but to a This Is Our Language recorded by this same quartet in 2012: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet/alto sax), Kent Kessler (bass), and Chris Corsano (drums). Joint credits, vigorous if a little on the rough side. A- [cd]

Armand Hammer & the Alchemist: Haram (2021, Backwoodz Studioz): Hip-hop duo, Billy Woods and Euclid, sixth album since 2013, team up with producer Alan Marman (ex-Cypress Hill). "Haram" means forbidden in Arabic, and pigs figure prominently, especially on the cover. B+(**)

Bicep: Isles (2021, Ninja Tune): Electronica duo from Belfast, Northern Ireland: Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar. Second album. "A potent blend of euphoria and melancholy that captures the very essence of rave perfectly." B+(**)

Abraham Burton/Lucian Ban: Black Salt: Live at the Baroque Hall (2018 [2021], Sunnyside): Tenor sax and piano duo. Burton was one of the brightest saxophonists to emerge in the 1990s, but has nothing as leader since 1995 -- although his side credits picked up after 2010, including two albums with the pianist. Strikes me as a bit cluttered, partly because the shift from alto to tenor slows him down. B+(**)

Brian Charette: Power From the Air (2020 [2021], SteepleChase): Organ player, leads a sextet with a range of horns -- flute (Itai Kriss), alto sax (Mike DiRubbo), tenor sax (Kenny Brooks), bass clarinet (Karel Ruzicka) -- and drums. Postbop, but swings some, DiRubbo stands out among the horns. B+(*)

J. Cole: The Off-Season (2021, Dreamville/Roc Nation): Rapper Jermaine Cole, sixth studio album. B+(*)

Czarface/MF Doom: Super What? (2020 [2021], Silver Age, EP): Hip-hop supergroup (7L, Esoteric, Inspectah Deck) teams up with rapper Daniel Dumile for a short album (10 tracks, 26:44), a follow up to their 2018 Czarface Meets Metal Face. Originally slated for April 2020, held back due to lockdown, finally appearing after Doom's death in October. A-

Dan Dean: Fanfare for the Common Man (2017-18 [2021], Origin Classical): Aaron Copland's title piece runs 3:34, but to these ears it's indistinguishable from surrounding pieces by Elgar, Bach, Debussy, Holst, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Khachaturian, and lots more Bach, rendered in a cappella (but surely multitracked) bippity scat, with a bit of whistle. Some famous titles here, but I hated classical music so much as a child I would plug up my ears or mute the TV, and I've never felt the slightest loss. My bad, perhaps, but not as bad as the "teachers" who thought that nothing else was worth listening to. B- [cd]

John Dikeman/Hamid Drake: Live in Chicago (2018 [2020], Doek Raw): Saxophonist, born in America but based in the Netherlands, returns to Chicago for a 37:12 improv with local drummer. B+(*) [bc]

Silke Eberhard Trio: Being the Up and Down (2020 [2021], Intakt): German alto saxophonist, also plays bass clarinet, leads the larger group Potsa Lotsa, trio with Jan Roder (bass) and Kay Lübke (drums), whose names also appear on the cover. A-

Michael Formanek: Imperfect Measures (2017 [2021], Intakt): Bassist, another member of Tim Berne's 1990s group, dozen or so albums under his own name. This one is solo, pretty good for such. B+(**)

Garage A Trois: Calm Down Cologne (2019 [2021], Royal Potato Family): Acid jazz group, sixth album since 2003, first since 2011, now slimmed down to a trio as saxophonist Skerik doubles up on keyboards -- other long-term members are Charlie Hunter (guitar) and Stanton Moore (drums). B+(*)

Doug Lofstrom: Music for Strings (2018-19 [2021], Origin Classical): From Chicago, bassist, "has been composing prolifically since the 1970s," has a previous album on this label, but not much else I'm aware of. This was performed by Russian Strings Orchestra, conducted by Misha Rachlevsky. The sort of thing I couldn't stand as a child, and can barely tolerate now. B- [cd]

Mach-Hommy: Pray for Haiti (2021, Griselda): Rapper Ramar Begon, from Newark, Discogs credits him with 14 albums since 2016, but most were self-released, and Wikipedia never heard of him. B+(***)

Tobias Meinhart: The Painter (2021, Sunnyside): German saxophonist (tenor/soprano, alto flute), half-dozen albums since 2015, this with piano/bass/drums, guest guitar (Charles Altura) on two tracks, trumpet (Ingrid Jensen) on two others. B+(**)

William Parker: Trencadis: A Selection From Migration Into and Out of the Tone World (2019-20 [2021], Centering): Bassist, has released massive works before -- e.g., the 8-CD Wood Flute Songs in 2013 -- but this year's 10-CD box is unusual both for its size and the short time involved. I received a promo sampler in January, but didn't bother as it didn't look like product, as I resigned myself to missing his magnum opus. However, this sampler does now seem to have an independent existence, at least as a digital album. No idea who plays or sings (most songs have vocals), and I continue to have doubts and frustrations about the utility. B+(**)

Jeremy Pelt: Griot: This Is Important! (2020 [2021], HighNote): Mainstream trumpet player, albums since 2002, impressed me first with his chops, but has rarely made compelling ablums out of them. Ties in with a book of interviews with jazz musicians from Bertha Hope to Ambrose Akinmusire, full title Jeremy Pelt Presents: Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz's Great Storytellers, Vol. 1. Half-dozen original pieces, a couple more with ongoing commentary, and snippets of interviews. With keyboards (Victor Gould), vibes (Chien Chien Lu), harp (Brandee Younger), bass, drums, percussion. B+(*)

Ivo Perelman/Nate Wooley: Polarity (2020 [2021], Burning Ambulance): Tenor sax and trumpet duo, at least the fifth album they've done together but the first duo. Probably because the tone limits wear on you, no matter how creative they sound at first. B+(*) [bc]

Tom Rainey Obbligato: Untucked in Hannover (2018 [2021], Intakt): Drummer, I first noticed him with Tim Berne in the late 1990s, has a half-dozen albums, including Obbligato (2014), a quintet mostly reunited here: Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax), Drew Gress (bass), with Jacob Sacks (piano, replacing Kris Davis). B+(**)

Skyzoo: All the Brilliant Things (2021, Mello Music Group): Brooklyn rapper Gregory Taylor, tenth album since 2006, underground vibe, not as distinctive as his two 2020 efforts. B+(**)

Will St Peter/Steven Heffner/Steve Barnes: Honestly (2020 [2021], Origin): Guitar-bass-drums trio, based in Dallas, studied at UNT, first album. Three St. Peter originals, covers ranging from Mancini to Ornette Coleman. B+(*) [cd]

The United States Air Force Band Airmen of Note: The 2021 Jazz Heritage Series (2021, self-released): Taxpayer-supported culture, probably the least offensive thing the USAF does, but still an annual event I hold no hope for and am regularly repaid with varying levels of distress. Not that they can't play, but they have nothing much to say. Does provide a paying gig for a couple of ringers each year: Peter Bernstein and Chris Potter this time. B- [cd]

Jennifer Wharton's Bonegasm: Not a Novelty (2020 [2021], Sunnyside): Bass trombonist, second album, group a trombone quartet (John Fedchock, Nate Mayland, Alan Ferber) with piano/bass/drums, and guest spots for Samuel Torres (2) and Kurt Elling (1). B+(**)

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (1971 [2021], Island): Does "That" make any sense here? Subtitle feels like an anagram where you can shift words around endlessly without settling on a satisfactory result. No doubt the music was changing, as was the world, but subject and object are harder to grasp. Maybe it was dialectical? The documentary series runs eight episodes, about 6 hours, and contained enough music for a 4-CD box, so a single CD is bound to disappoint. As a synopsis, sure isn't bad, especially starting with "Imagine" and "What's Going On." But David Bowie, who probably gets more screen time than anyone, and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," which is heavily featured as the year's most striking song, are missing here, as are Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Joni Mitchell, and Sly & the Family Stone. On the other hand, there are songs and artists here that I don't recall in the videos (like Rod Stewart, the Beach Boys, Edwin Starr's "Ball of Confusion," and the Temptations' "Just My Imagination"). I'm not inclined to complain about any of those last four -- even the piece from the otherwise lame Surf's Up (although John Martyn and Nick Drake do seem a little parochial, even in England). No doubt licensing has something to do with it, even though Universal, which owns Island, owns damn near everything. Makes me wonder if Sony can do an answer record (which should get us Bowie, Scott-Heron, and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"). A-

Gary Bartz NTU Troop: Live in Bremen 1975 (1975 [2021], Moosicus, 2CD): Alto saxophonist, played with Dolphy, Mingus, Roach, and Blakey in the 1960s, with Miles Davis in 1971, left to form this band in 1971, with an uncompromising mix of avant postbop, black power, and crossover funk. This is close to the end of their run, down to a quartet with keyboards (Charles Mims), electric bass (Curtis Robertson), and drums (Howard King). B+(***)

Tim Berne/Chris Speed/Reid Anderson/Dave King: Broken Shadows (2018 [2021], Intakt): Alto and tenor sax from Berne's breakthrough groups from the 1990s, plus Bad Plus bass and drums. First released by vinyl-only Newvelle in 2019, so technically a reissue, predating Jazzclub Ferrara's live Tower Tapes #2, credited to Broken Shadows, perhaps the best set in their Covid lockdown dump. Impressive group, but slips and slides a bit much. B+(***)

Julius Hemphill: The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (1977-2007 [2021], New World, 7CD): Box set with 40-page booklet, which may answer some of my questions. Alto saxophonist, major avant-garde figure from 1972 (Dogon A.D.) to his death in 1995, and in some ways beyond. He was the defining force behind World Saxophone Quartet, at least early on, and developed another saxophone choir in the 1990s (see Five Chord Stud), as well as a big band. He continued composing after he was no longer able to play (c. 1990), and periodically ghost bands appear in his name. I don't have date details here, but the stretch 12 years beyond his death is hard to fathom. The only thing he didn't play on was the Disk 4 "Chamber Music," and most of that (37:16) was a quintet he conducted (all horns, two brass/three reeds; the rest is 7:02 by pianist Ursula Oppens, and 19:15 by Daedalus String Quartet). The title is a group he played with c. 1977 (mostly a quartet with Baikida Carroll, Jehri Riley, and Philip Wilson; later with Carroll, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette), and the other groups (various Quartet lineups and the duo with cellist Abdul Wadud) weren't much later. There's a fair amount of squawk early on, and the chamber music isn't that interesting, but this really picks up on the fifth disc (Roi Boyé Solo and Text), particularly the "Unfiltered Dreams" with K Curtis Lyle's poetry set to solo saxophone (e.g., "Nobody Tells Me What to Do"), and the later live groups are both bracing and sophisticated. Not all great, but rises to that level time and again. A-

Old music:

Bee Gees: Trafalgar (1971, Atco): British group, three Gibb brothers, born on Isle of Man, grew up in Manchester, formed a skiffle group there, took a detour to Australia, releasing Bee Gees' 1st in 1967, the first of four albums (through Odessa) that peaked 4-16 in the UK, 7-20 in the US, 8-13 in Australia. I didn't notice them until their disco revival in 1975, but they scored their first number one US single here with "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Nothing else here is remotely decent. C-

Anne Briggs: Anne Briggs (1971, Topic): English folk singer, first album (after an EP in 1963), followed almost immediately by The Time Has Come, and very little else. I was surprised to find the latter in my database as a full-A album (English/Celtic folk is really not my thing, but the reissue was a pick hit in my May 2007 Recycled Goods). Much a cappella, remarkable in its own way. B+(***)

James Brown: Super Bad (1970 [1971], King): He signed to Polydor in 1971, which took over distribution of his King catalog, so this "live" album and the two-months later Sho Is Funky Down Here got reissued by Polydor within the year. Title hit is so great they stretch it to three parts (9:16), and "Giving Out of Juice" runs a bit longer. Four other songs run 3:05-39 (basically, singles with dubbed audience), including covers of "Let It Be Me" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." B+(***)

James Brown: Hot Pants (1971, Polydor): Hot single, more funk vamps, about par for a period when everything he touched was golden. [CD reissue adds the 19:09 complete take of "Escape-ism," excerpted on the original.] A-

James Brown: There It Is (1972, Polydor): More classic funk grooves, pausing for public service sermons about "King Heroin." A-

James Brown: Get on the Good Foot (1972, Polydor): Only album I can recall which features an advertisement for itself in any form, let alone running 5:54 to start off Side 2. Great songs you've heard before and/or will hear again, and other stuff. B+(*)

Carlton and the Shoes: Love Me Forever (1978, Studio One): Jamaican vocal group, also known as the Manning Brothers: lead singer Carlton, Donald, and Linford -- the latter two were also in the Abyssinians. First album (of three). B+(**) [yt]

Carpenters: Carpenters (1971, A&M): Brother-sister duo, hugely popular, albums 2-5 from 1970-75 went platinum (as did, 7X, The Singles: 1969-1973), declined thereafter, with Richard's drug problems and Karen's anorexia (fatal in 1983) tarnishing their story book wholesomeness. This was their third album, anchored by their most famous single ("Rainy Days and Mondays"), second side with a fairly decent "Superstar," the rest fleshed out with string and choral arrangements that make Mantovani sound like Mozart. C

Grin: Grin (1971, Spindizzy): Nils Lofgren, got his start playing guitar and keyboards with Neil Young, led this band 1971-73 before going solo, and winding up as a hired hand for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. I was introduced to this band through best-ofs, which emphasize Lofgren, so I recognize a few songs, but others have yet to sink in. Later reissues add "featuring Nils Lofgren" to the cover/title. B+(**)

Grin [Nils Lofgren]: 1 + 1 (1971, Spindizzy): Lofgren's name on top, but in smaller type, as if they're having trouble figuring out who this is. Good songs, but they (he?) don't have a trademark sound, nor do they hint at the future Americana mold, and the orchestral swell on the finale leaves me cold. B+(***)

Grin: All Out (1972, Spindizzy): Third album, went with the group name, and seem happier for it. This holds up better, but again the "best-of" songs get there first. A-

Billy Joel: Cold Spring Harbor (1971 [1983], Columbia): Piano-playing singer-songwriter, first album, barely dented the charts (158, 95 UK, 44 Japan), two years before Piano Man got him some notice. Artie Ripp produced, and reportedly butchered the original mix, leading to a split and a long contract dispute. Ripp remixed the album in 1983, cutting it from 33:07 to 29:53, correcting the pitch, and dubbing in more band. That seems to be the mix I listened to, which is spare but inoffensive. He seems to have a knack for writing show tunes, but not much context for staging them. B

Elton John: Elton John (1970, Uni): Piano-playing pop star, second album (but first released in US), scored a hit with "Your Song" but little else. B-

Elton John: Madman Across the Water (1971, Uni): Two singles here, "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon," where the definition of an Elton John single is a melody fetching enough they can survive the dead weight of Bernie Taupin's lyrics. B-

Elton John: Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973, MCA): Helps to pick up the pace, as he did on Honky Château, and again (less consistently) here, especially with "Crocodile Rock." I suppose his "Texan Love Song" has a whiff of irony, but he doesn't impress with his redneck yahoo act. B

Elton John: Caribou (1974, MCA): Recorded quick, then dressed up by the producer while he was on tour. Singles: "The Bitch Is Back," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Fatigue sets in, if not him, then me. B

Elton John: Elton John's Greatest Hits Volume II (1971-76 [1977], MCA): Ten songs on the original North American version: two from albums out before his first Greatest Hits, four from later albums (two from Rock of the Westies, his best album, and one from Blue Moves, possibly his worst), plus four non-album singles, including covers of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Pinball Wizard" and a duet with Kiki Dee ("Don't Go Breaking My Heart"). The covers seem celebrate his status as a celebrity, but don't do anything interesting. B+(**)

Elton John: Elton John's Greatest Hits Volume III 1979-1987 (1979-87 [1987], Geffen): After Blue Moves (1976), I paid him no attention -- the only later album in my database was his 2010 duo with Leon Russell (The Union, a B; Christgau gave up after Jump Up! in 1982, aside from this best-of and a 1992 "dud"). However, his singles discography shows 11 top-20 records in this period, and 11 more through 20002 (more on the Adult Contemporary chart), so I thought this might be worth checking out. Only two songs I recognized here, and only one was close to great -- "Sad Songs (Say So Much)." The rest are uninspired formula (at best). B

Curtis Mayfield: Curtis (1970, Curtom): Joined a group that became the Impressions as a teenager in 1956. Left them to go solo with this album in 1970. I've been playing his career-spanning 2-CD Anthology a lot lately, and the two most brilliant pieces here are there, but the rest of his music finds a unique groove and persona, and I don't see any point quibbling about details. A-

Curtis Mayfield: Roots (1971, Curtom): Maybe you could nitpick some of the arrangements, but his voice and rhythms are so supple they wash right over them. Fewer songs I recognize from Anthology, but the flow is unique, powerful, sweeping. [PS: CD adds 4 alternate takes, underscoring great songs.] A-

MC5: High Time (1971, Atlantic): Michigan rock band formed in 1964, cited nowadays as "proto-punk," third and final album (despite partial reunions in 1992, after vocalist Rob Tyner died, and in 2003-10, until bassist Michael Davis died). Eight songs, extra horns on the last. B+(***) [yt]

MC5: Babes in Arms (1966-71 [1983], ROIR): Wayne Kramer compiled this from "rare out-takes, mixes, remixes, uncensored and experimental works in progress, and rehearsal tapes," for cassette release in 1983. Yet somehow this strikes me as more satisfying than any of their studio albums: some of their signature songs, loosely done but expertly paced, gets stronger and stronger. A- [bc]

Helen Reddy: Helen Reddy (1971, Capitol): Pop singer from Australia, had some hits in the 1970s, especially on the Adult Contemporary chart. Second album, one short of her breakthrough hit ("I Am Woman"). She wrote 1.5 songs, smartly picked covers from John Lennon, Donovan, Carole King, Leon Russell, and Randy Newman, but my favorite is "Tulsa Turnaround." Nice voice, decent arrangements, even the strings. B+(***)

Helen Reddy: Helen Reddy's Greatest Hits (1971-75 [1975], Capitol): Ten songs, picked for chart position (9 top-2 AC, the other was the oldest, peaking at 12), so nothing from her 1971 eponymous album. There are more "definitive" compilations, but the CD reissue, with (And More) tacked onto the title, just took her to 1979 (and down to 60 on the pop chart, 41 AC). Reminds me we stopped caring about pop charts as the 1970s progressed, and never gave Adult Contemporary a second thought. Arrangements can be a bit much, but I rather like her. B+(**)

The Stylistics: The Stylistics (1971, Avco): Vocal group from Philadelphia, featuring Russell Thompkins Jr.'s falsetto and Thom Bell's production. First album, a tour de force. A-

The Stylistics: The Best of the Stylistics (1971-74 [1975], Avco): I should probably sample the four intervening albums, which charted 14-66 (R&B 3-8) and got panned by Christgau (B+, C+, missed the 3rd, C), but I'm impatient. Ten songs, four from the debut, seems like it should have grabbed me faster -- like the first album did, but right now I'd rather move on. B+(***)

Ike & Tina Turner: River Deep Mountain High (1966 [1969], A&M): Originally released on producer Phil Spector's label in the UK, but the Ike-less title cut stiffed (peaked at 88 in the US, vs. 3 in the UK), delaying US release. I've long regarded it as genius, but Ike's "I Idolize You" [originally from 1960?] has a lot more grit and soul. As the album alternates six productions by each, it risks schizophrenia, but both halves are so intense they modulate each other, albeit strangely. A-

Ike & Tina Turner and the Ikettes: Come Together (1970, Liberty): After opening for the Rolling Stones, they make a (partial) move toward the rock market, adding four rock covers to eight Ike songs. Tina comes close to owning the latter, but really burns on the originals. A-

Ike & Tina Turner: What You Hear Is What You Get: Live at Carnegie Hall (1971, United Artists): Live double, but not that long (59:26), notable for the preponderance of covers -- only two Ike credits, one shared with Tina, the other a mere 0:30 of "Ike's Tune" -- with "Proud Mary" featured and Otis Redding for the closer (or encore). B+(***)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Rodrigo Amado This Is Our Language Quartet: Let the Free Be Men (Trost)
  • The Mark Masters Ensemble: Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster (Capri) [06-18]

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