Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, April 12 – April 18, 2014

I blew off the Drive-By Truckers, who were in town (the new one isn’t moving me yet). But it wasn’t all bad.

1) Lazy Lester: I’m a Lover Not a Fighter (Ace/Excello). God bless the Excello label and Jay Miller. The R&B, blues, and soul they released was distinctly country-flavored, with no small dose of Louisiana mixed in. The great Slim Harpo is their gold standard, but if you haven’t sampled Lester deeply, he’s callin’ your name. Drawling, behind the beat and taking his time, he waxed nearly as many memorable tunes as his label mate, prime among them “Sugar-Coated Love,” “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter,”  and “Take Me in Your Arms” (all here). He also backed numerous other Excello artists, and is still out there on the road.

2) Chuck Carbo: “Second Line on Monday” and “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On”: Carbo was one of the finest and versatile but most underrated of NOLA’s r&b kings of the ’50s (when, primarily, he was the lead vocalist in The Spiders). My wife Nicole and I have been plotting a move to New Orleans (a surprise I am sure is not big to careful observers of these Top 10s), I’ve been reading Jeff “Almost Slim” Hannush‘s The Soul of New Orleans, and my research has happily turned up these two examples of Carbo’s longevity from the 1980s, when he put these songs on the permanent ‘OZ Mardi Gras playlist.

3) Khaira Arby: “La Liberty,” from Festival Au Desert: If you are a completely unabashed appreciator of beauty and passion in all musics, you NEED a chanteuse of Saharan desert blues sand-blasting through your speakers. Mariem Hassan would seem to rule the roost in this category, but this live track from one of Timbuktu’s last (pre-revolution) festivals shows Arby’s right on her heels. The whole rekkid’s amazing but hard to find; if you want to dip into the genre, a better starting point you cannot find.

Watch an entire Arby concert on NPR:

4) Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers (Rykodisc): It takes a special occasion for me to put this on in my ma-toor-ity, but Holly George-Warren’s excellent Alex Chilton bio caused me to pull it from the shelves, and it made for a weirdly pleasant lava-flow afternoon. Definitely as sui generis as anything this sui generis artist ever produced, and it’s got “codeine” stamped all over it. Jim Dickinson was at the controls, and that just made it worse/better. Enjoy the full damn album, courtesy of You Tube (I paid for mine):

5) Dead Moon: “Poor Born,” “40 Miles of Bad Road,” “54/40 or Fight”: The great Fred Cole, who’s hardcore commitment to DIY–in music, in life, in romance, in child-rearing–has spanned right on 50 years, has been recuperating from heart surgery over the past week, and I can’t get him off my mind. Mastermind behind The Weeds, Zipper, The Rats, The Range Rats, Dead Moon (THE ultimate cult punk band), and (currently) The Pierced Arrows, so down-to-earth he appeared at my high school for a free show, he deserves as much support as the cognoscenti can muster–so I played these three faves over and over. You should, too.

A vintage performance of “54/40 or Fight”:

6) Earl King with The Meters: Street Parade (Fuel): Perfect title for this pairing of two Crescent City institutions, one an influential guitarist (are you familiar with Jimi Hendrix, who covered one of his tunes?) and songwriter (did you know he wrote this?), the other an R&B instro act that often makes Booker T and the MGs sound…stiff. When your drummer is Ziggy Modeliste, a street parade will be in the mix.

7) Johnny Adams: There is Always One More Time (Rounder Heritage): They don’t call him “The Tan Canary” for nothing. Possessed of both a penetrating yet silky baritone as well as a shocking falsetto, Adams laid down stunning tracks on a fairly consistent basis from the late ’50s all the way into the lower reaches of the ’90s. This collects the best of his late phase. If you dig Sinatra, you have no excuse to ignore an exploration:

moseallison

8) Mose Allison: Way of the World (Anti-): “An old man/Don’t get nuthin’ in the world these days.” Well, he didn’t write that, but he wrote the very similar line (and song) The Who made famous at Woodstock and on Live at Leeds. Too many folks slept on his last release, exquisitely produced by Joe Henry (who’s never done a job I haven’t admired), and are un-American for doing so. Mose is all precision on the keys and, as always, brainy on the lyrics, one of the best of which lauds his octogenarian brain–as long as there’s coffee available. A national treasure–give him his props, before the heartbeat stops.

9) Beausoleil: “Bessie’s Blues”/”I’ll Go Crazy”/”You Got to Move,” from From Bamako to Carencro: Not sure anything like this has been done in Cajun music, or any kind of Americana–a cover sequence moving  through nuggets originally composed by surprising guiding lights John Coltrane, JB, and Mississippi Fred that doesn’t stumble once. The twin genius axes of Michael (fiddle) and David (guitar) Doucet are at peak levels of invention, passion, and dexterity. I’d try to link it, but, trust me: just buy it.

10) Sisyphus (Secretly Canadian): It’s tempting to dismiss this as sissy fuss, with Sufjan Stevens on hand and Serengeti continuing to threaten to waft away into the indie-sphere. But, at least to my ears, there’s something original and even encouraging in this almost-formula: Stevens (often) provides a plaintive frame for a more substantial and (at least relatively) gritty narrative/inner monologue/confession by ‘Geti. Son Lux lays down the beats, that last word one that gatekeepers would put in quotes. Just gotta say, it gets to me in a near-prophetic way: the ‘burbs and the urbs joining forces to try to communicate a complicated reality.

Today’s Reading Assignment, Best Music Writing Division

You must read this great article by John Jeremiah Sullivan, my candidate for best music writer alive.

1321599963-at_1108_pulphead_480x360

Sullivan explores the mystery of country blues singers Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Country blues folks are mysterious almost be definition, but Wiley and Thomas are unique. This interactive piece includes links to the very tiny but potent body of music these ladies left behind. I will also add this clip from the documentary CRUMB that features Wiley’s deep, deep, deep “Last Kind Words Blues” (if you dig R. Crumb, watch the whole clip, but the tune shows up for a beautiful segment at the 4:30 mark):

Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, April 5 – April 11, 2014

I guess it is going to become regular…

destruck624

1) Holly George-Warren: A Man Called Destruction–The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (Viking) I am a mass devourer of pop music tomes, but also a bit of a Chilton skeptic: even the brilliance of the best Big Star material is largely attributable to Chris Bell, and too much of the man’s notoreity is connected to things other than music. But George-Warren not only makes a great case here, taking the reader behind the scenes to bedroom rehearsals, bent late-night studio experiments, eccentric apprenticeships, and a long, disciplined, sober road to demonstrate Chilton’s hands were on the wheel more often than reported–even when he was barely conscious. More important, she shapes meticulous research (oh, to have grown up in the Chilton home!) into breezy and fascinating narrative, and balances that with insight into the making of the music. Plus, she passes my first test of good music books: her book sends you racing back to the music (the proof of which you will see in this week’s entry). In fact, my Brit Lit class enjoyed a Big Star block party today while they worked on their writing portfolios. Note: it does share something significant with a recent Zevon tome— this was a guy who, despite his charisma and multiple connections, was very, very lonely.

2) “Every night I tell myself, ‘I am the Cosmos, I am the wind’/But that won’t bring you back again….” Easily one of my favorite rock and roll couplets. Chilton didn’t write it; his partner Chris Bell did, though the sound of his post-Big Star productions (captured on the Rykodisc release I Am the Cosmos) revealed that band’s sonic architecture might well have sprung initially from Bell’s mind. I love the combination of metaphysics and heartbreak, and, really, the whole “record” (Bell died before he could complete a solo album) is fascinating:

3) Doris Duke: I’m a Loser–The Swamp Dogg Sessions (Kent) Jerry Williams, Jr., is one hell of a producer, songwriter, and bandleader, but seldom did he oversee someone else’s record that topped his own eccentric and piquant output. Working with luminaries like Irma Thomas and Gary U. S. Bonds, he wrote nice material and created solid settings, but somehow the artists didn’t catch fire. Not true on these 1969 recordings with one of soul’s great lost treasures, Miss Duke from Sandersville, Georgia. She rises to the occasion of great Dogg titles like “Ghost of Myself,” “Divorce Decree,” and “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman,” selling them with a smoky, soulful, very country authenticity that’ll make you wonder why she didn’t become a star (I’d argue, a late start in the soul game).

4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: The George Mitchell Collection, Volume 45 (Fat Possum) I can’t get enough of one of Senatobia, Mississippi’s finest citizens. Hemphill, “The She-Wolf,” plays in the distinctive, trancy, north Mississippi style, and these are her first recordings (her mother and aunt often turn up accompanying Fred McDowell on his records). Along with two fetching cuts comes an interview with Miss Hemphill. Hear the whole thing right hyar:

5) Wussy: Attica! (Damnably) Sometimes I feel like arguing, “You either love Wussy or you don’t know they exist.” Living as we do in a world of fiberglass hoods, erotic teens, calendar cowboys/girls, and Mensa-folk conformists, it seems impossible not to support, encourage, and listen to (if not lionize) rockin’ and writin’ marrieds whose personae as well as music is as entrancingly homely and evocative of lived lives as Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker’s. On this brand-spankin’ new rekkid, the musical attack’s a little richer (helped by a member of Cleaver’s former band, The Ass Ponys) and the tart harmonies and wry words (the opener finds Walker lost in a corn maze) show absolutely no loss of concentration. Even their best records are a little uneven, but, on second listen, I feel safe dubbing this one their most consistent. Fans of George and Tammy (sorry), John and Exene (sorry), Thurston and Kim (sorry), Bruce and Patti (well, OK), Ira and Georgia (righteous), Fred and Toody (the MOST righteous), and Cecil and Linda (wait….) need to do the right thing and take this band for a ride. If I were in a band with my wife, I would want it to sound this honest and unique: “Attica, baby/Call it LOVE!” Also, I can relate to Chuck’s observation that, twenty years ago, he was more beautiful, but also more monstrous. For the benighted, an alternate version of a Wussy classic:

6) Guided By Voices: Bootlegged live, ’94. I don’t know much about this recording, though it seems to be made in Ohio from the apparent presence of Ron House in the audience; the recording was passed along to me by a long-time rock and roll compatriot. I’ve never been a fan, and I don’t know why, because in many ways they seem to have been made to hit my musical pleasure points: swift, concise, raw, literate, and tuneful. I think I thought Robert Pollard’s approach was too cute, that his writing and concept was, weirdly, too facile. Anyway, this changed all of that. Pollard and very likely the band are blasted (which was their rep, I guess), but as they rip through tunes from the just-issued Bee Thousand and before, they sound perfect to me, in all the previously enumerated ways. And it’s valuable to keep in mind that the Replacements, predecessors with much the same ethic, never left a live document this alive. Thanks to Mark Anthony of the much-missed website The Rawk. From the same time period:

7) Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) 20 years after she knocked the world on its ear as a young mother and avant garde progeny in a buffalo stance (that single STILL sounds marvelous), Ms. Cherry, fresh from fronting a free jazz record–not an easy VOCAL task–has issued this equally challenging project, where her still free-inflected vocals dart and linger in and around extremely crisp and deep trip-hop inflected tracks. It’s hard to judge it, because I haven’t heard much like it, but I have been encountering some age-ism lately, and Cherry’s work is argument against it.

8) Dry Wood (directed by Les Blank) and Bury the Hatchet (directed by Aaron Walker) One old, one new doc out of Louisiana, the former about Creole culture (specifically, music and food) in Mamou, the latter about NOLA Mardi Gras Indians (specifically, Big Chiefs Alfred Doucette, Victor Harris, and Monk Boudreaux). Both films are beautiful and do what they set out to do and more. But they are most striking in capturing Americans making and building (also, unfortunately, rebuilding) things themselves–they will strike you across the face with what you are missing out on. VERY, VERY highly recommended.

Dry Wood trailer:

Bury the Hatchet trailer:

9) Allen Toussaint: Life, Love, and Faith (Four Men with Beards Reissue) Toussaint’s mild, almost shy singing causes some listeners’ minds to wander, but here it’s backed by the original version of The Meters (notably including the drumming of Ziggy Modeliste, which is always interesting by itself) and some of the best tunes and arrangements Allen ever wrote for himself. Quietly and seductively funky, in the New Orleans way.

10) Fats Waller, 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Scrambling to get it together to meet my Science Olympiad crew at 6:30 at the local university, my stressors were vanquished when my wife Nicole got the right medicine out of the cabinet. If the world is too much with you, if you can’t pry your mind from lost planes, corporate control of your country, the frustrations of your job (if you even have one), or absent friends or family, let the mischievous Mr. Waller remind you that life is too important to be taken seriously. His deft command of the 88s, his phrasing-with-a-wink, his jaunty rhythm, his raffish charm–what more can you ask for to lift your tension?

 

 

Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, March 30 – April 4, 2014

Not that I expect this to become a regular feature–I hope it does, though my small band of followers must have noticed I am casting about a bit–but here are some brisk takes on the ten things that spun most euphoniously around my eardrums this week. Consider them strong recommendations for application to your own soul-ills, whatever they may be.

1) Tin Men: Avocodo Woo Woo (CD Baby). I was skeptical about this NOLA trio (featuring Washboard Chaz, the astonishingly ubiquitous songwriter and guitarist Alex McMurray, and sousaphonist–only in the Crescent City!–Matt Perrine) possibly being a dad-rock cum Parrothead act until I read a notably scrupulous and discerning NYC critic’s glowing notice of this, their new album. It is perfectly frothy and spirited fun, with interestingly dark (“Blood in My Eyes”) and dirty (the title song) turns. And, frankly, I love the sound they get from their three pieces.

2) Como Now: Voices of Panola County (Daptone). I am not sure how this brainstorm by “The Label Sharon Jones Built” came about, but in ’06 their agents found themselves in Como, Mississippi (home/former whereabouts) of Fred McDowell, Otha Turner, and Napolion Strickland), soliciting a capella gospel songs from black Christian locals and recording them in a local church. A moving listening experience, especially Irene Stephenson’s harrowing “If It Had Not Been for Jesus.” I am an atheist, and it transfixed me.

3) The Staples Singers: Freedom Train (Epic). Not to be confused with the relatively recent Columbia best-of of the same title, this live album was cut in a church in the group’s then-hometown of Chicago, and the location and the clarity of engineering make it one of the most powerful gospel records of the ’60s, methinks. It’s out of print; I thought I’d pulled a fast one and snagged a $4 copy on eBay, but it was pretty banged up–not so much so that I did not THOROUGHLY enjoy the almost otherworldly dynamics of the performance, particularly Pops’ always-venomous guitar and Mavis’ almost atavistic pleadings.

4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: Feelin’ Good (Shout Factory). Just a bit north of Como (also north of Winona, where Pops Staples was raised up–can you tell I’ve been to Mississippi recently?) is Senatobia, and the space between is one of the locations where North Mississippi Hill Country blues was born. It’s a different animal than Delta blues: structurally and lyrically, it’s more repetitive, but that’s not necessarily a deficit when it’s played with intensity. That’s when it becomes hypnotic–in some ways, it’s an extreme version of the John Lee Hooker sound. Hemphill was raised in this (and the related fife-and-drum) tradition; she’s not as loud nor does she project as well as R. L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, but her feminine perspective and toughness often make up for that. Try this:

5) Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya” (from Nervous Breakdown, Jive Records). As Chicago rapper Serengeti’s Tha Grimm Teachaz project suggests, there’s one thing very special about the best rap rekkids of 1990-1995: they don’t date as badly as the prime cuts of other eras. Also, that period seemed stylistically wilder, with seemingly unforgettable (but now pretty much forgotten) MC Chip Fu providing a mind-boggling thrill every other song for this unique group. Other MCs may have been faster, but not more inventive at the same time. By the way, how many current rap GROUPS can you count?

6) D’Angelo: Live at the Jazz Cafe, London, 1996 (Virgin/Universal). This was a Japan-only release back in the day it was recorded, but, as I understand it, even then it wasn’t as expansive as this new reissue, which features ACE covers of The Ohio Players, Mandrill (“Fencewalk”!), Smokey Robinson, and Al Green along with classics from Brown Sugar–principally, a phenomenal performance of the tital track. Weirdly, the artiste often seems to recede into the performances, so he’s no more emphasized than the band or the backup ladies (led by Angie Stone), almost…a Billie Holiday thing. At first I was disappointed he didn’t project more, then I began to suspect it was part of the conception. The link below may be the whole dang thing. Keep your ladies inside the fence….

7) Duke Ellington Orchestra: “Snibor” (from the American Hustle soundtrack or, better advised, And His Mother Called Him Bill on RCA). I finally had a chance to see American Hustle this week, and Nicole and I were surprised and thrilled to hear Johnny Hodges’ alto oozing from this film-opening soundtrack cut. Also, having courted to rekkids ourselves, we were surprised and thrilled to see the protagonists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) do the same thing, to Duke and Jeep’s “Jeep’s Blues.” If you are not familiar with Hodges’ sound, it is the definition of sensuous AND sensual; if you are not familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s compositions for Duke, they are usually designed to highlight that sound. Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube clip for this tune, but here’s an equally seductive one from the same, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED album (a tribute to the recently-passed Strayhorn):

8) The criminally underrated music of Tyler Keith. As a long-time teacher, I am closely acquainted with the dangers of certainty; in fact, I make it a point to seldom if ever come at students from that angle. Music, as esoteric as our perceptions are, is even more problematic in that regard. But I am certain of this: in a world where the rock and roll impulse is dimming, quite seriously (I think that’s a result of the natural evolution of cultural history, of young musicians, for example, casting off the influence of the blues–although donning the robes of a hipster version of James Taylor, in my view, is a misstep–and not feeling the pressures and releases of a society obsessed with sin and salvation, which I think our society still is but youth circa 2014 may not necessarily be), Tyler Keith of Oxford, Mississippi, may well be the  last live-wire link to both the near-insane energy and rhythm of rockabilly and the bugged-eyed gaze into the void of Richard Hell’s strain of punk, which might really have never been fully exploited for its potential. Whew. That was a long one. But goddam I believe it, and the proof is in the best of Tyler’s work with the Neckbones, and three of his rapidly disappearing four “solo” albums (with the current Apostles and the former Preachers’ Kids), in chronologically descending order, Black HighwayWild Emotions (a fantastic rekkid that MIGHT AS WELL NOT EXIST ON THE INTERWEB!!!), and the perfectly-titled Romeo Hood. Keith’s vocals leap out of his larynx as if propelled by a blood-surge, the music is deeply embued with tough-ass-Stones, sprung-Chuck Berry flavor and Johnny Thunders-styled explosions that are quite unpredictable (!) but perfectly timed in nature, and lyrics that are as obsessed with sin and salvation as The Killer’s favorites, though one suspects with Tyler those are purely existential notions. He can even nail a ballad, even one called “Angora,” about a certain sweater. I have never seen him live, but the intensity of his best recordings cause me to suspect that if I do and he is on, it will be hard to stay in the same room with him. The thing is, I felt this strongly when there was a decent herd he was travelling in; now, he is the burning antithesis not only of the swarms of bearded strummers that play, in critic and musician Allen Lowe’s perfect phrase, as if they have napkins folded in their laps, but also of the depleted strain of rockers who, honestly, usually protest their rockitude too much. With Keith, one feels he’s communicating his wild emotions without artistic calculation, and that’s special. I’ve gone on too long, and I can’t do him justice, but I AM RIGHT: here’s a video of one of the best tunes on his recent rekkid, the BEST rock and roll album of 2013.

Chuck

9) Public Enemy: “Can’t Truss It” (live on Yo! MTV Raps). Nicole and I were fortunate enough to see the great rap orator Chuck D speak at Columbia’s Missouri Theater Tuesday night, for FREE (not nearly enough folks there, though). He is a hero of both of ours–I’ve even read his books–and we came with high expectations. He delivered grandly, though he talked mostly about critical thinking in the age of extreme technology and devolution of United States popular culture (remember when that two-word phrase was a joy? a reason to live?). I prepped for his appearance by watching this great raw video of one of PE’s greatest songs, one I used to teach in American lit, though I didn’t show it to kids this week (I was thinking about using it to promote the appearance) because I didn’t want to be met with slot mouths.

10) Tommy Boy All-Stars: “Malcolm X: No Sell Out” (Tommy Boy 12″). This, too, was part of my prep for seeing Chuck D, a man who, really, hasn’t sold out, either. I’ve read both the Haley/X “autobiography” and Manning Marable’s corrective bio, and I absolutely love the threading of perfectly chosen soundbites from Malcolm’s speeches (“I was in a house tonight that was bombed…my own. It’s not something the makes me lose confidence in what I’m doing.”) through an ace Keith LeBlanc track. In a perfect world, it woulda been a hit. Still inspiring: “I’m not the kind of person who would come here and say what you like.”