Good to My Earhole: The Last Half of June

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I absolutely love storming guitars. That’s why I love these two rekkids.

Something old, something new. Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins two-volume Herald Recordings (mine are on Collectables; I think they are available on other labels as well), recorded in that very significant year of 1954 (not ’55), make the Houston blueman’s claim to being a father of rock and roll–that’s how much steam he works up on classics like “Blues for My Cookie,” “My Little Kewpie Doll,” and “Lightnin’ Don’t Feel Well.” Though there are no late-night changes of paces, there are some rather amazing instrumentals, like “Hopkins’ Sky Hop.”  On Obnox’s Louder Space (on Austin’s perfectly named 12XU label), guitarist/drummer/vocalist Lamont Thomas (formerly of that unjustly obscure band of Ohioan ravers, This Moment in Black History) continues his assault on all things genteel–hey! it’s freaking taken over beyond neighborhoods, can’t you see?–with 12 hard-charging, fuzz-layered, no-let-up toons that conjure memories of prime Stooges, Big Black, and Dirtbombs. There’s a fonk-bomb called “How to Rob (The Punk Years)” (my personal favorite), there’s a redefinition of “Riding Dirty,” and the rekkid closes with a great dirge, titled, with perfect justification, “Feeling Real Black Today.” I just played the whole thing thing three times in a row. I think Lightnin’ would have loved it.

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Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings (Reprise)

I am half-deep in Will Friedwald’s Sinatra: The Song is You, which veers from near hagiography–I have never seen so many absolutes (“always,” “never”) from such an esteemed writer–to glowing, revelatory descriptions of classic sessions that argue that, in contrast to, say, Elvis, Ol’ Blue Eyes was in near-total control of his art, from modulating his justly-legendary voice to stopping sessions to make astute suggestions to producers, conductors, and musicians. When he got his own label, he went a little nuts, recording way too often with too few heads to butt against, resulting, with the help of the normal hell aging wreaks on a singer, in many records you could skip (can’t say that about his previous Capitol output). This one, though, is a real beauty. Sinatra comes to bossa nova a little late (1967–Getz got there in ’64), but I would argue this is the most fully realized statesize stab at the genre, and if you take umbrage with the claim Sinatra was a jazz singer–that his instrument was flexible to the degree of experimentation–well, gather yourself for this aural rebuttal. He’s close-miked, his every exhalation–no common matter with bossa nova!–sustained sibilance, and register-dives part of the music, and Jobim’s lighter vocal accompaniment and nimble guitar surround and respond to him just like those Nelson Riddle arrangements used to on Capitol. It’s a masterpiece. I am not sure I don’t like it better than In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. On a vocal level alone, no self-respecting George Jones fan should be without it.

Wussy

Heartless Bastards: “Got Down Last Saturday Night” b/w Wussy: “Breakfast in Bed” (Shake It Records)

This is the third in a four-45 tribute to the Muscle Shoals guitarist Eddie Hinton. I am not a huge fan of the Heartless Bastards, but the only thing they do wrong here is wind up too early; right as you are loving it, it’s over. Actually, though, I bought this as a gamble: the original “Breakfast in Bed,” which Hinton played on but did not write, was one of the many highlights of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and Springfield sings it so exquisitely, with such a lethal combination of compassion, soul, and delicate raunch, that no singer in his or her right mind should ever go near it. Lucinda Williams, the Americana Joan Baez, tried, and had her limitations ripped out and shown to her the second before she–figuratively, of course–fell dead on the studio floor. How would Wussy’s Lisa Walker, whose imprecise pitch strikes one as either extremely fetching (if you are me) or a deal-breaker (if you are just mean), fare against the memory of a singer so ethereal, hip, Southern, and, it’s true, geisha-like–at least on that one album–that many listeners didn’t realize she was white and British? Like her band (“our people,” as partner-singer/songwriter Chuck Cleaver calls them), up against similarly daunting and virtuosic predecessors in Memphis’ American Studios session men, she puts her head down and attacks the song like it’s happening to her. Ragged and passionate, she and the band do justice. An essential pickup for Wussy fans, and a victory against the insidious musical creep of technophilia and gentility.

The original, to hear what they were up against:

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The American Song-Poem Anthology (Bar/None Records)

Once upon a time, you could scribble down your song lyrics, send ’em off with a check, and professional musicians would create a song around them–even if, in your song, you thought tangerines were yellow (and your song was called “I Like Yellow Things”). I am late to the party on this strange, strange compilation, but it is oddly unsettling, and infernally catchy. Example: the title song, which at first struck me as surreal and unhinged, then earwormed me for a few days, then had its mystery revealed by my wife Nicole, who matter-of-factly stated what the difference was. I will leave it to you as an enducement to try this very American, very weird record. Do you know the difference between big wood and brush? And do you know musical geniuses killed themselves trying to make these records for people like you?

A Memory Stirred by Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion 33 1/3 Book

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Funny thing about this book. I was at the library picking up a hold (Song of the Shank–more on that next month, probably) and, as usual, couldn’t help looking at the new music nonfiction. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my glasses, and my arms were only long enough for me to make out “Alex Ross,” “Brilliant,” and the title. Those sounded promising, so, I thought, why not add it to the stack? Upon arriving home and putting on my specs, I was initially dismayed to discover it was an expanded 33 1/3 entry about Celine Dion. Those things are so numerous, it’s hard to keep up with them–and, to my lights, they are seldom very good. I also noticed a Jonathan Lethem blurb, and, I’m sorry, but right now, “those guys” are not floating my boat much. Nonetheless, I chose to sample it. Not many hours later, I had finished it, and, truly, every music nut–and, especially, every music writer–should be required to read it. Wilson wasn’t a Dion fan when he took on the project (and still not much of one after); his idea was to use his distaste for Dion to examine what taste really is, and the results of his inquiry are sometimes rattling. Personally, as in Emerson’s old quote, I found many of my own past musings marched much more eloquently than I ever thought ’em back across my eyeline. The revelations Wilson makes are too numerous to go into fully here, but two fascinated me so much that, in the hours after I finished it, I began to reflect on some of the music “taste collisions” of my past. We all have bands that speak so directly to us that our responses are deeply emotional, that we can’t really think of them at a critical distance (right now, for me, that’s the Cincinnati, Ohio, band Wussy). Often, that speaking doesn’t necessarily relate to the benchmarks of high art, much less the simpler idea of good taste. Wilson, delving into both the significance of Dion’s Quebecois past to her Canadian fans and also the needs she might be fulfilling in her listeners in the wider world, writes wonderfully about how this phenomenon complicates critical assessment and discussion. Second, the author enters a long thought-tunnel concerning kitsch, and exits wondering, with great justification, whether there’s something troubling about cultural gatekeepers disparaging artists who traffic in, shall we say, broad emotions. Why, for example, should it be more critically valid to lionize artists who shine a light on the darker corners of living than to exalt those who choose to magnify the glow of the brighter ones? Now, honestly, how many of us have paused and thought that, caught short by a corny wedding song we’d never be caught dead housing in our media players?

These questions took me back to a moment in my late teens that I have often recalled. Having just finished my first year of college, where two new friends hipped me to many punk bands, notably The Ramones and Black Flag, I had returned home for the summer to work in a factory and save up some dough. Even though I had graduated from high school with “decent” taste–I was deeply obsessed with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello–I was ill-prepared (and completely, totally ready) for the worldviews of X, the Germs, Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, the latter two to whom I’d listened but not “got” prior to my college exposure. I knew good and well that, returning to the small southwest Missouri town where my parents lived, I would be spending the social segment of my leisure time tolerating the music of others. Such snobs we can be when we are wet behind the ears.

One weekend night, a carload of fellow factory workers, city pool rats and I headed across the state line into Kansas, where we could legally drink 3.2 beer (main attraction), ogle and even dance with women (second by a slim margin), and bask in the glow of .38 Special, Loverboy, Head East–must I go on? This particular evening, the rest of my party had had an exhilarating time; I, on the other hand, had spent most of the evening playing the wall, grimacing during mega-Midwestern-blasts like “Hold On Loosely,” and thinking about the Minor Threat/Bad Brains mix tape I’d just gotten in the mail from one of my college buddies, who, lucky for him, went home to California and was seeing L.A. punk bands live. I was a mope, and couldn’t wait to get back home. No wonder no chick wanted to dance with me.

On the way back, we were all quiet, most in a bit of a “j mood.” The car stereo was loud. The music fed their fantasies; it discouraged mine. Journey. Escape. My head was right next to one of the back speakers, and, with each Steve Perry vocal skyscrape, I took a deep swig of piss water and gnashed my teeth. An hour’s ride full of this, equivalent roughly to having an old filling drilled out without anesthesia. Casually at first, I looked around at my comrades, most of whom were reclined almost fully, their eyes closed, grinning blissfully (the driver was not among these, to our immense good fortune) and occasionally nodding to key phrases. An unsettling thought hit me: against the backdrop of a hometown they didn’t have much refuge from–I was the only college student among them–which offered little career fulfillment beyond industrial work, little social fulfillment beyond the bars, bowling alleys, pool, and, well, forays across the state line, and precious little diversity of culture and opinion, the–yes–soaring, Utopian music of Journey was simply and powerfully beautiful. In a flash, I realized, “The subjects of Springsteen songs don’t listen to Springsteen songs; they’re Steve Perry and Neil Schon fans!” Thinking from a writing student’s perspective, I thought, for a minute, “But…it’s so generic!” Well, it’s that just-right generic quality that allows for projecting one’s reality, no matter how constrained, upon the song’s magnificent scene, right?

You have to understand, Journey was everywhere in ’81–especially on the municipal pool jukebox on our days off and even more especially on those weekend Kansas clubs’ sound systems. This wasn’t a decade or so later, when the band’s reputation underwent some overdue reconsideration, when “Don’t Stop Believin'” closed down The Sopranos. Journey could not be escaped, which made the aesthetically deft escapism in their music easy to miss. For me, at least, this uncomplicated band was very complicated. My mind finished its convolutions at the approximate moment that “Open Arms” drifted (if loud music can be said to drift) from the car stereo speakers, and by that time, I had made peace with Journey’s music–in fact, I felt a little shamefaced that I had to furrow my brow to appreciate it, that I had to condescend before I could appreciate the other guys’ appreciation, but at least I found myself enjoying “Open Arms” for the first time. Of course, I didn’t share this tableau with my buddies when I returned to school, but it did help me avoid being a jerk when I started teaching and got into music gab with my students. I still don’t own even a Journey greatest hits album, but I can hear their finest achievements with startling clarity in my memory, and the feeling is warm, and good.

If, like me, you’ve experienced such a moment, you really need to read Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love–or, then again, maybe you don’t. It’s all in really hearing the soaring.

 

Rock in Real Life: Vignettes Proving Why It Matters

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June 21, 2014: Wussy Night

My wife and I have had a difficult last year and a half. Her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer in February of 2013, and the two of us, with some hospice and much colleague support, were in charge of her care until she passed away December 8, 2013, and lived with her in her duplex for the final three months, plus one in the aftermath. Though we have had about seven months to “recover,” grief takes its time, the intensity of our situation was unusual, and Nicole was an only child, her mother’s only sibling having passed in October, and her maternal grandparents had died long ago. We try a lot to loosen the grip of memory and pain: meditating, communing with nature, reading, cranking the stereo, drinking, going on trips, socializing, just heading out the front door and improvising. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Weekends are often the hardest.

Tonight, after having a strong margarita apiece at our favorite Mexican restaurant, we headed into town for food and who-knew-what, storm clouds threatening, and the Cincinnati, Ohio, band Wussy blasting from the car stereo. I had delayed playing the band for her; honestly, their name is not the greatest, and Nicole, as she should be, is a tough critic, especially when it comes to modern rock. But this band is special. Their noise–rough, passionate, often wild–matches their lyrics–searching, exclaiming, questioning, battling, reflecting–matches their singing–human, disharmonic, desperate, urgent–and I knew if the moment was right, she would fall under their spell. As we drove under alternating sunshine and dark-blue billows, she was able to take in some of their best songs (I’d carefully assembled the car iPod playlist): “Teenage Wasteland,” “Airborne,” “To the Lightning,” “Beautiful,” “North Sea Girls.” Though I have been thoroughly indoctrinated into this band’s method of expression, I even found myself caught off guard, getting a surprise “erection of the heart” (Lester Bang’s phrase about Elvis) while being swept away by the perfect chaos of “To the Lightning”‘s guitar and lyrical attack. This band is for real, in their prime, and should not be missed, whether you cloister yourself and just listen to tracks, hit the clubs, or just go out driving with the windows down and the stereo blasting.

Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver are one of the most believable couples in pop music history, at least from the point of view of the average listener. George and Tammy? too contrived (I mean the songs, but, I could almost mean their relationship), though their vocals made their tunes work. Exene and John: too arty, too boho, too sensationalistic. Fred and Toody: maybe not enough balance or specificity–they hang my moon, so I must tip light. But these two sell the idea that their songs are about working through the difficult dilemmas in life, with no loss of the god/devil in the details. After we listened to most of the playlist–and after stopping for food and hitting a couple bars–Nicole turned to me and said, “I like ’em.” If you’re still on the outside, and you use Spotify, try this replica of our evening’s soundtrack:

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June 22, 2014: Hangover Cure/Singing and Picking Spell Cast by Sinatra and Jobim

After the pure rush of Wussy’s music, beautiful weather (it never did rain–but the clouds vying with the sun were magnificent), great conversations on the streets (former school secretary and hubby, former student musician with new country aspirations) and in the pubs (jazz rap with bartender: Monk, Ella, Louis) of Columbia, we closed out at a new Logboat brewery that’s opened up in town, and spent a quiet, cool, beautiful evening huddling, talking, and plotting our next adventure. Grief must be aggressively confronted, almost daily. We came home full of great beer and a underlayer of tequila, walked the dog about a mile, watched a little of the original British Shameless, and went off to meet Morpheus. Unsurprisingly, when we awoke, we were groggy, and midmorning, trying to match some music with my state, I put on the complete Reprise sessions of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. Weird project: bossa nova was pretty much over by the time Ol’ Blues Eyes got the idea; also, the prospect of our greatest male singer of saloon songs and Tin Pan Alley gems taking on the sexy weirdness of Brazilian harmonies and rhythm, especially given that Sinatra’s magnificent voice was beginning to abrade a shade, seemed dubious. However, I’d already heard one track, “Insensatez,” that sort of knocked me out, so as I collapsed onto the couch, put the earbuds in, and scrolled to that playlist, I thought that the ease of the style and Frank’s crooning would be perfect for an hour’s catnap. Well, they were perfect–so perfect I could not sleep. Three things: obviously–and as was his habit–Sinatra had studied Jobim’s tunes, and thought deeply about them. Second, he’d consciously toggled from his very masculine and authoritative approach to a lyric over to, certainly, a more submissive and possibly more effeminate rendering (I don’t use that term pejoratively–I think it’s a striking trademark of bossa nova and samba singing). Third, the engineering is such that, along with hearing all the nuances of Jobim’s guitar-playing, you can hear Sinatra thinking, breathing, playing with sibilance–even (horrors!) giving in. It’s truly a masterpiece of risk-taking from a guy who’d already conquered the pop world several different times and still was thinking in terms of gambits, and the desire to be an even greater master. Honestly, this may be the great man’s last great album.

Once the rekkid was over–so was my torpor; in fact, I am sitting up, writing this, aren’t I? Pour a drink this evening, and if you have some contemplative time, activate this playlist–and adjust the volume so you can truly savor the aural details.

Phil’s Faves: A Mid-Year Report

 

These are the “new” recordings that I’ve enjoyed the most in 2014.

1. Allen Lowe: Mulatto Radio–Field Recordings 1-4, or: A Jew At Large in the Minstrel Diaspora – This is the most ambitious recording of 2014–if not the decade, or the century. That difficult-to-love high school principal of jazz, Wynton Marsalis, pissed off Lowe, as ardent a student of our country’s musical history as you can find, in a conversation about jazz that, of course, ventured into areas of race, appropriation, and creative rights. Lowe responded with a four-disc (five, if you ordered it early!) tour de force that’s more alive and interesting than anything Marsalis has recorded in years, if ever. You don’t have to love jazz to be fascinated with the result, which easily lives up to its provocative title and tours every nook and cranny of the genre. And, in this listener and thinker’s view, it wins the argument. Check out my buddy Ken Shimamoto’s much-more-wise commentary at his Stash Dauber blog (he’s a writer/muso like Lowe).

2. Bo Dollis, Jr. and The Wild Magnolias: A New Kind of Funk – What happens when you run a line of serious wattage into a Mardi Gras Indian practice.

3. Obnox: Louder Space – Continuing the fine Cleveland/Columbus tradition of ugly noise and urban protest. Lamont Thomas, with a serious punk pedigree to deepen his geographical birthright, makes a racket to light a fire under Mick Collins’ ass. Euphonious racket!

4. Latyrx: The Second Album Who cares if their first album dropped 17 years ago? Lateef and Lyrics Born are still two of the most unique rappers spittin’.There ain’t no “Balcony Beach”–how could there be?–but there is “Deliberate Gibberish”!

5. Ross Johnson and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans: Vanity Sessions – Out to prove the Memphis rock and roll underground is still nuts now that the Oblivians have grown up, they win, four falls out of six. The title of the opener–“Three-Beer Queer”–says more than any review can.

6. Wussy: Attica! – Robert Christgau calls them a blending of VU and the Flying Burrito Brothers, which is absurd. What they are, with the star- and shock-power of rock and roll browning out, is the voice of far less polymorphously perverse and doomed adults than Reed and Parsons ever were, negotiating the 21st century into a draw and constructing a passionate but unflashy soundtrack to back their bargain. That’s probably absurd, too, but if you are a rock and roll fan of a certain age (say, if you actually walked the Seventies teenage wasteland), and are feeling just a little embattled, this Ohio band is for you.

7. Marc Ribot Trio: Live at Village Vanguard 2012 – Two Aylers, two Tranes, and two sentimental faves, socked home by, arguably, the country’s most daring guitarist.

8. Neneh Cherry: The Blank ProjectStill in a buffalo stance. This mid-forties mama can roll with the zeitgeist–just ask Robyn, who spices up one of the best tracks here.

9. Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Volume 3 – Old Man River just keeps rolling out the cadenzas. All three volumes are musts.

10. Tinariwen: Emmaar – How many Tinariwen albums does one need? Well, remember what they have always said about ol’ Hank and the Ramones, and ask yourself how many notes it takes you to recognize “Ramblin’ Man” or “Beat on the Brat.” This band has a sound, a groove, and a brood in their wake, not to mention that, politically and aesthetically, Saharan blues is good for what ails ye.

11. The Stooges Brass Band: Street Music – I believe New Orleans music gets short critical shrift because the city’s always been teeming with such traditional music that it’s assumed its innovations are long past. I won’t argue that this band of Stooges is all that innovative, but brass-band toons with the lyrics and cultural weight of “Why They Had to Kill Him” and “We Gotta Eat” aren’t everyday creations. And these guys work in a damned HOT crucible of competition.

12. Natural Child: Dancin’ with Wolves – I admit it: I am a sucker for these Nashville no ‘counts, and even I regard their countryward turn with a tinge of dubiosity. But they are so fun-loving, so unselfconscious, so unambitious, so charming that if I didn’t laud them I would have to turn in my Sir Doug Fan Club badge. Face it: unselfconscious men are hard to find these days.

13. Roscoe Mitchell and Tyshawn Sorey (with Hugh Ragin): Duets – Mitchell’s 73, Sorey’s 33, they both know their Cage and Feldman, and, if you’re not into the sound of becoming–the sound of sound–you best shop elsewhere. But this hands-across-the-generations team-up is relentlessly interesting. All I’d ask is that Sorey played more drums.

14. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal – See Pitchfork. But it’s even better than they say. You gotta watch that groupthink.

Singles (Record Store Day double-header):

Bobby Rush: Upstairs at United – 81 years young this coming November, the inventor of folkfunk and seriously randy grandy is still one of our country’s underappreciated masters, and with the blues influence in our music trickling down to drops, you best get out to see him if he shows up in your ‘hood. But fathers, watch your daughters. Note: he also put out a full-length this year, and we’re only halfway through!

Marc Ribot w/Deerhoof: Who Sleeps, Only Dreams – When our age’s heir to Sonny Sharrock appears, attendez-vous!

Old Stuff/Reissues:

Various Artists: Haiti Direct! – Rhythm nation. And, oh, those guitars and horns.

John Schooley One-Man Band: Schooley’s Greatest Hits – The instrumental fulcrum of two-count-’em-two great lost garage punk bands, The Revelators and the Hard Feelings, Schooley will deliver all of the excitement and relentless rock of Bob Log and his ilk with none of their bullshit. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand — it’s free!

Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys: Riding Your Way–The Lost Transcriptions for Tiffany Music 1946-7 – The best band in the USA, circa 1946-7. Camaraderie, versatility, chopsmanship, rhythm, and high times–plus, of course, you can dance. Aaaaaaaaah-HA!

Various Artists: Angola 2

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali, Volume 2

D’Angelo: Live at the Jazz Café, London – His band and back- up singers work harder than he does, and it’s still a great show.

Gories: The Shaw Tapes—Live in Detroit 1988

Sid Selvidge: The Cold of the Morning – A Memphis cult hero, his voice was silenced by cancer on May 2, 2013. This reissue of a ’70s Peabody Records release captures him in his prime, comfortable with everything from Furry Lewis to Jimmie Rodgers to Fred Neil and boasting a very flexible, very American voice that gives off not a whiff of minstrelsy or strain.

 

GOOD TO MY EARHOLE, First Half of June

Marc Ribot: Two Serenity-Wreckin’ Trios

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Ceramic Dog: Your Turn (Northern Spy)

The Marc Ribot Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi Recordings)

Best known as an accompanist for The Lounge Lizards and Tom Waits, Ribot’s never put out a boring solo record. He plays guitar as if a jagged tin can and ropes of barbed wire are being employed, but, like Jimi Hendrix, he is able to control and channel his sound to produce frequently quite beautiful works. Also, Ribot’s smart and well-versed enough that he can adapt his sound to Cuban rhythm (check out his Los Cubanos Postizos records), rhythm and blues (he used to play in Solomon Burke’s band), punk (he’s the star on the recent and controversial re-recording of Richard Hell’s Destiny Street, filling the shoes and tracks of the legendary Bob Quine), pop (accompanying Marianne Faithfull), and jazz (his Albert Ayler-dedicated Spiritual Unity Trio). Being someone who believes that inventive electric guitar noise–loud electric guitar noise–is receding into our pop music’s background, I am thrilled to recommend to you two very different recent trio recordings Ribot’s made–that only Ribot could have made. Ceramic Dog is his rock project, and 2013’s Your Turn should have been in many, many critics’ year-end Top 10s. Besides offering the listener a truckload of skronky, intense six-string wailing and riffing (including the raging title cut, which sounds like a tribute to chainsaw jazz inventor Sonny Sharrock), it features the greatest lyric yet recorded about illegal downloading (“Masters of the Internet”) and one of the only songs based on materialist philosophy I have ever heard. As well, it takes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” five ways from Sunday, and astutely adapts a turn-of-the-twentieth-century poem by James Oppenheim to our modern use. The fact that Ribot can’t sing but only yells matters not a whit. The Vanguard trio has gone under multiple names; because it’s a) largely dedicated to Ayler recordings; and b) lured legendary avant-jazz bassist Henry Grimes (an important Ayler sideman) out of what seemed like permanent retirement, it’s often called Spiritual Unity, after one of Ayler’s greatest albums. Let’s sweep nomenclatural confusion out of the way, though, because the band’s 2012 live performance (Grimes’ first in almost 50 years) is stunning. The set list includes two relatively obscure Coltranes (“Dearly Beloved” and “Sun Ship”), two normally corny standards (“Ol’ Man River” and “I’m Confessin'”) and, of course, two Aylers (“The Wizard” and the ol’ New Thing chestnut “Bells”), and the trio digs into them with great intensity, invention, and interaction. If you haven’t heard Ribot before, but know Trane and Ayler, you might well ask, “How does a guitar deal with the huge noise of those horns?” Well, for the most part, he sidesteps the “bigness” issue and invests in ritual repetition, melody, vocal emulations, and, especially, the questing nature of those great men’s styles. The big triumph, to me, is that Ribot’s audacious decision to mount those corny standards alongside free compositions many jazz experts still wouldn’t think of allowing into the canon pays off in spades: the set sounds unified and the compositions of a piece. If you’ve never thought you’d like free jazz, you might take this one for a spin.

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Haiti Direct! (Strut Records)

I know doodly-squat about Haitian music–other than that its traditions have flowed to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Mexico, and, especially, Africa, and that it’s a country where slave-chains were thrown off in a revolution and the river of freedom drunken from deeply (though in some ways the worst was yet to come). If you happen to be in a music store when this is playing, you might very well mistake it for a Congolese release, if you know your Franco and Rochereau. But, if you buy one international release this year, make it this one. Of course, the rhythms are bewitching and various and compelling–most of them are designed to bring the dancer to the point of frenzy. But the tensile guitars cut through the mix like serrated knives, the horns are played as if to wake the dead (which takes on multiple dimensions in Haiti), and the vocals, though not everpresent, range from demented screaming to–yes–meowing. If you’re a scholar, the record surveys multiple styles and is festooned with thorough notes. But if your heart, mind, ass, and feet like to move, you can save the reading for later and slap this on the turntable Saturday night once the drinks start to kick in.

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Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (4 Men w/Beards reissue)

A good friend who I loaned this to as he was recovering from a breakup begged me, “Don’t ever give this to anyone who’s heartbroke again! It’s unbearable.” I’d been aware of that possibility before I loaned it; I’d used it myself for the same purpose, but, personally, I like to be taken to the very bottom before I start heading back up to the surface. Parson’s yearning, soulful, precisely imprecise vocals–the bane of multiple producers trying to get great records out of him during his comet-streak of a career–are at their peak here; even if you’re in a blissfully bounteous relationship, if you can listen to him sing, “He may be/Sweet and nice/But that won’t keep you warm at night/’Cause I’m the one/Who let you in/I was right beside you then….” without feeling the knife twist, you ain’t human. And the songs. The heartbreak songs are extraordinarily painful and indelible, mainly by virtue of splendid dabs of specific detail, but the others, especially “Sin City,” “Christine’s Tune,” “Wheels,” and the International Submarine Band chestnut “Do You Know How It Feels,” pull off that near-impossible trick of wedding the personal with the political, with no sign of strain or pretention. Elsewhere, Gram re-genders and tweaks “Do Right Woman,” matching Aretha (did I stutter?), and closes each side (I’m talking about vinyl here, folks) with marvelous comic relief: the draft-dodging “My Uncle,” trailing echoes of Merle Haggard, on Side A, and the droll Staples Singers/Hank Williams send-up “Hippie Boy” on Side B. The band was ace, especially Sneaky Pete Kleinow on steel, who cranks and fuzzes up his notes, the ultimate instrumental collision of city and country. This release corrects a very crappy remix foisted upon consumers by Edsel’s CD version, which quiets down Kleinow’s contribution slightly and bungles the balance–it’s one of the clearest, cleanest, richest sounding vinyl reissues of the current landslide, and that’s especially relevant since the rights to the album seem in questionable territory, and the last vinyl version I owned (A&M’s) sounded half as bright. Safe at Home (International Submarine Band), Sweetheart of the Rodeo (The Byrds), and Grievous Angel (solo) confirm Parsons’ genius. By now, most of us know he picked up country music second-hand, enjoyed trust-fund status, and treated friends, family, fellow musicians, and the ladies with imperfect consideration. But, in classic artist-as-martyr fashion, he died to capture the end of an era and birth an entire genre on this magnificent album, and I’m almost OK with that.

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The Sweet Inspirations (Collectors’ Classics/Atlantic)

Familiar with this go-to group of backup singers from their subtle work on Dusty in Memphis, I stumbled across a reference to their 1967 debut album while plumbing the darkened corners a famous critic’s archives. I hadn’t known they’d recorded albums of their own, and generally backup groups’ records are a little plain. Not so this one. Led by Cissy “Whitney’s Mama” Houston, the ladies deliver a very, very effective and emotionally powerful performance in the heat of the spotlight. The tersely pain-filled opener, Darryl Carter’s “Oh! What A Fool I’ve Been,” should be a Northern Soul classic if it isn’t already; the ace cover of Pop Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” opens them out into the real world of the Civil Rights Movement and lends the record gravitas. In between, they’re professionals-plus, especially on the already oft-recorded “Let It Be Me,” the title tune, and the knockout hillbilly-boogie cover “Blues Stay Away from Me” (you’ll never need to listen to the Delmore Brothers’ original again). They can’t quite chase the memory of Eddie Floyd on “Knock On Wood,” and they are too put-together to handle the Ikettes’ lettin’-it-loose “I’m Blue,” but with the studio aces of Memphis’ American Sound Studio shoring them up (especially Reggie Young on guitar) when they (only) occasionally flag, the Sweet Inspirations turn in what I’ll confidently call a minor masterpiece.

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Serge Chaloff: Blue Serge (Capitol)

A flat-out beautiful record, one that should be among Kind of Blue, Time Out, and A Love Supreme as “starter” records offered to neophytes wanting to test the unpredictable and varied waters of jazz. The ill-starred Chaloff, a veteran of the great Woody Herman “Thundering Herd” band that also featured Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, plays his baritone with seductive lightness and ease (and a hint of bebop), the tunes, standards and newly-minted soon-to-be classics are unbeatable, and the combo is stunning, especially the fleet, inventive and equally ill-starred Sonny Clark on piano and the unflappable and star-defying Philly Joe Jones and drums. Seductive, engaging, and well-nigh perfect.

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Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)

Almost every review of I’ve read of this band’s music leans very heavily on comparisons (no surprise there–it’s easier than thinking), but, if you’ll excuse me for being guilty of the same vice, I have been pleasantly surprised that I’ve mostly been reminded of none of the bands referenced therein. What Sunbathing Animals puts me in mind of most is The Libertines’ Up the Bracket: unpredictable explosions, careening forward momentum, drunken shifts, a healthy helping of ‘I don’t give a fuck”–all in all, a great rock and roll rush. I also appreciate that the lyrics don’t seem assembled from a magnetic poetry kit. Only things I haven’t liked is the grating outro of Side A–I love shitty noise, normally–and the ground-out of Side B. Good show, kids, and please stay in love with your guitars.

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Stooges Brass Band: Street Music (Sinking City)

I like this tiny New Orleans-based vinyl-only label: its first release was the charming and historic compilation of Ricky “Shake Fa Ya Hood” B. singles, B is for Bounce, and though the Stooges’ record is only its third offering in a year in business, it’s a step in the right direction. The Crescent City is full of excellent brass bands, but The Stooges are my favorite because they seem most comfortable stepping out of the tradition. On this six-song record, they play with great exuberance, but they also deliver two powerful lyrics, the opening “Why They Had to Kill Him” and the closing “I Gotta Eat,” that deal unflinchingly and unsentimentally with the problems of 21st century poverty in the USA–a topic few musical acts in the USA go within a ten-foot pole of. Did I mention that they play with great exuberance?

Good to My Earhole: Bo Dollis, Jr., and The Wild Magnolias’ A NEW KIND OF FUNK

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Technically, this record is a 2013 release (it came out last September), but, if’n I get a chance to vote in any record polls in 2014, it’s sure to be in my Top 10. My decision will be justified: it’s on a tiny New Orleans label (One More Time), it’s distributed by CDBaby, it features no mega-stars, it arrived with no hoopla (when I bought my copy at Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans, the very well-seasoned owner couldn’t even get excited about it when I asked about it), and, well, it’s out of New Orleans, the still-fabulous music scene of which may be back in the public eye thanks to Treme but still gets very, very little critical love and mainstream coverage. So: we may as well call it a 2014 release.

Now that I’ve expended a paragraph on a barely-necessary justification…some background. Dollis is the son of one of the most legendary big chiefs in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, the chief, in fact, who sang lead on the 1970 45 “Handa Wanda,” the first commercially released Indian chant. That single was the first of three significant such releases of the decade, the others being long-players released by two competing tribes, The Wild Magnolias (1974) and The Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976). If you’ve never heard ’em, they feature some of the straight-on greasiest funk of their time, with P-Funk, riot-era Sly, and JB its only equal. Each record features only traditional Indian chants, with only two overlaps, and those so differently arranged you might not notice; these chants deserve your attention, because their subtext is defiance, bravery, and endurance, themes that at this point in America’s racial history have gained deeper, more painful, and more inspiring resonance. Each record features a different famous force of funk: on Magnolias, the great guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who might pre-date JB in his history with the style; on Tchoupitoulas, the quirky and inventive Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste. Each record features a local-legend producer: the ’74 record, Willie “Thank You, John” Turbington, the ’76 record Valhalla-bound songwriter/pianist/arranger Allen Toussaint. Each record, my friends, is a stone classic. Unfortunately, as far as your average music consumer is concerned, that would seem to be the end of Mardi Gras Indian music on record. However, there has been a steady stream of these records released across the last three decades, from further releases by Dollis, Sr., and his Wild Magnolias as well as the Golden Eagles tribe in the ’80s (they received a smidgen of roots-music ink) to the extremely obscure but excellent 1997 Flaming Arrows’ Here Come the Indians! and the vaguely 21st-century set of tracks laid down by the Hundred & One Runners on the tiny Mardi Gras Records’ 2012 Best of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Like Western swing, this little subgenre seldom fails to deliver pleasure, delightful camaraderie, and the urge to get the hell up and dance.

Which finally brings us to the release in question. In view of both the general lack of consumer and critical attention given to Mardi Gras Indian music and the historical evolution of the subgenre, the record is a very significant one. Bo, Jr. and his producer Joe Gelini have achieved a rare trick: usually, when an artist or producer tries to “rock up” a non-rock genre, the result is a tasteless, unsubtle, desperate aural brew that disappoints everyone involved, specifically including listeners; here, the frequent dabs and splashes of guitar crunch, supplied by St. Louisan Mike Zito and Brothers’ son Devon Allman, are nicely accompanied by deftly mixed and soulfully played dobro, fiddle, piano, and horns (none familiar aspects of the subgenre), as well as the usual funky percussion and tambourine. The intelligence and touch behind the conception, playing, and production, best exemplified by the Dollis’ opening “We Come to Rumble,” makes A New Kind of Funk the best chance yet for Mardi Gras Indian music to jump off the island of esoterica onto the mainland of Americana. That is, if the project had more commercial and media support behind it–a guy can dream. Also, Dollis’ decision to weave in his own originals and Indian-style covers of classic New Orleans jazz (“Tootie Ma,” “Little Liza Jane”), r&b (“Hey Now, Baby” featuring fine Professor Longhair-style piano from Tom Worrell), and soul (a not-entirely-successful “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky”) with traditional battle cries like “Fire Water Big Chief Got Plenty” and “Hell Out the Way” pays off big in two ways, appealing honestly to outside fans as well as expertly connecting four Crescent City musical traditions–and helping to keep the music in a state of evolution.

A New Kind of Funk is an exciting, spirited, and various set that deserves much more attention than it likely will get, and it comes at a time when the tribes are struggling to keep that ever-infernal “younger generation” interested in their rich history of exuberant and stylish resistance. If the kids followed that history back to mid-1800s Congo Square, where it started, they might just discover it is the wellspring of their music. And, oldsters, you might find it’s also the wellspring of yours. If you do buy this album, and like it, please please please go right on ahead (or back, I should say) to The Wild Magnolias and The Wild Tchoupitoulas. You will feel the fire of a sound that’s kept folks off their knees for a long, long time.