Sunday, October 20, 2013

Live to See the Morning Come--Chuck Berry's Birthday and the Del Lords in St. Louis

Born in 1963, I'm just finishing my 50th year. That's a big number. There's no way to call yourself a young man once you've been here half a century. Last night, a dear friend asked me to say three things about this birthday, and I struggled to come up with anything else except that...I can no longer deny my age.

But my second one was "I'm glad I'm still here." I almost left 7 years ago, had a close call, had some last thoughts. In some ways I was happier with myself then than I've often been since. It's been a tough time. Aside from a list of heroes I don't want to count, I've lost a number of important friends over those 7 years, including 7 extraordinary women--most to illness but some by their own hand. It's made me wonder why I outlived them, or whether I should have.

But, of course, there are many more reasons I'm glad I'm here. I got to be in my oldest daughter's wedding this year, and I saw her baby boy in a sonogram at the first of this month. My wife and I adopted a daughter three years ago, and we're all blessed to have her in our lives. I've got great friends....That was the third thing, how thankful I am for the loved ones in my life.

Two of them took me to St. Louis Friday, October 18th, to see the Del Lords, a band I first heard when I was 21, on a cassette I played on a drive home from a record buying trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma. If my buddy Terry and I wanted anything good that wasn't going to be at Walmart, we had to drive the 50 miles to Tulsa. That trip was the best. We came home with Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive and the Del Lords' Frontier Days, two records that changed both of our lives.

Despite having recorded that first album with Springfield, Missouri producer Lou Whitney, the Del Lords were a New York band, and the closest I ever knew of them coming to anyplace I lived was St. Louis in the 80s. I never saw them in that first decade they were together. They had to get back together after 22 years, record what I think is my favorite of their albums, The Elvis Club, and play last Friday night in the shadow of the Lemp Brewery. On top of that, my buddy Billy Chin, Del Lords fan extraordinaire, had to be paying close attention to the tour and nab tickets for me and another of our close friends or I probably wouldn't have seen them this time.

When I think of hearing the encore Friday, The Del Lords' drummer Frank Funaro singing "I Play the Drums," I remember how lucky I felt to finally have that catharsis live. I had similar out-of-body-by-being-fully-in-it experiences hearing the one-two punch of the Del Lords' great cover of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" followed by "Get Tough," the righteous, high energy assault that introduced their first album. As lead singer Scott Kempner gritted his teeth and railed against all the world does to harden our hearts, every muscle in my body wound tight, and I kicked at the floor. The years between 21 and 50 collapsed. If anything, I only know those emotions better now than I did when I used to shout along with those lyrics all those years ago.

But it's not just about connecting with your 21-year-old self again....Here's why you stick around, if you have a choice in the matter...

The band followed "Get Tough" with what may be my favorite song off the new album, "Me and the Lord Blues." It's a blues, for sure, a song about the ability to dream your way through a shit life if only when you go to sleep at night. But the song's bigger than that sounds. The sound is free form, almost psychedelic, and its explosive rolls of guitar and drum Friday night transcended what is already some amazing studio work on the recorded version.

Eric Ambel's quiet, careful delivery picked up on the liberating (against all odds, including those lyrical) tone from a song he'd sung earlier, "Flying." When he asserted, "I hear freedom/I smell justice," he defined what bound him to Kempner and what continues to bind this audience to this great band. The Del Lords make rock and roll for true believers, and that vision almost 30 years down the road is even more powerful than it ever could have been in our youth. It has so many new miles of depth and substance.

Of course, the whole night had been a tribute to those many ties that keep pulling us back together. The great Bottle Rockets frontman/guitarist Brian Henneman led the crack ensemble Diesel Island (that night featuring wonderful lead guitar work from Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges and Son Volt) through a series of gorgeous covers, including Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" and the Band's "The Weight."

At the end of the night, the Del Lords had Henneman come back out to join them. Before playing Berry's bittersweet "Johnny B. Goode" sequel "Bye Bye Johnny," Kempner called out, "To Chuck Berry on his birthday! Without him, none of us would be here!"

Truer words were never said.

The fact that a band like the Del Lords is here with us?

One damn fine reason to be glad you're alive.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

RRC 231: The Best of Our Summer Downloads

No. 231

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        Every time we set out to concoct one of our musical surveys, each of us is always knocked out by how much wonderful music is out there and how many different kinds of music make the grade. When our picks come together, with an absolute minimum of overlap (and not by assignment), the impression is deepened and reinforced.

        Dave Marsh writes: Bang Bang Boom Boom, Beth Hart (Provogue)—Beth Hart plays out the Janis Joplin role with important variations: She overcame her self-destructive habits, she writes, and while she had a hit years ago (“L.A. Song,” itself pretty great) she’s never been put on a pedestal. Hart growls as deep as Judy Henske and she could match Janis shriek for shriek (and knows when to turn it on, and when not to), but that tremble is all her own. 

If Hart really resembles anybody it might be Etta James, not because they sound alike but because they’ve both been through the worst and let it show without reveling in the muck or pretending that just surviving adds up to all that much.  “You say you ain’t sick / but every little bit of the living hurts,” she tells a loved one before offering to carry the weight. “There in Your Heart” could be sung from God to human, no-saint to a trapped sinner, mother to child, lover to ex.  Anybody to anybody.

Bang Bang Boom Boom is one of the best records of 2013, a powerhouse, astringent,  blues-drenched account of lives at the edge—not so much of the edge of death as of disappearance, offering an assortment of glimpses from the maw of all the wrong kinds of work and love. It’s not like there’s no sense of fun here (not with lines like “I found me a better man / He butters my pan better than you can”) but the exuberant moments are earned, not contrived. In a time when almost no one makes albums that are complete, deliberate,  cohesive statements: Bang Bang Boom Boom
            On the bonus track, she does a rendition of Etta’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,”a task that I ordinarily wouldn't wish on any singer I loved, especially alongside Jeff Beck at his best. Hart turns on the power gradually, creating a slow burn where a lesser singer would flame out after a chorus. She does it with the same clarity of vision that drives the rest of the album. Beck's guitar solo feels like an ovation for the depth she's touched. Or maybe I'm projecting.
Elements of Life (Fania/Codigo Music)—Once again Louie Vega--the most prolific music remixer in history, one half of Masters at Work, nephew and musical descendant of legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe—has assembled a large crew of musicians to help him realize his fantastical vision of dance music without boundaries, a world without categories. The highlights of disc one include “Children of the World,” which strips away the mawkishness of every charity appeal you’ve ever heard; “Sodade,” an invitation to enjoy the beautiful side of our Afro-Atlantic history; and the warm breeze of “Harlem River Drive,” which uses sonic sheen to melt your heart. Disc two begins with “EOL Soulfrito” and within a minute you’re lost down the rabbit hole of a “suite”  that is a journey through, but not at all a linear history of, salsa, disco, house music, and Vega’s own blend of them all. Ruben Blades parachutes in at one point and then around the 21-minute mark Cheo Feliciano appears to lead a remake of his classic “Anacoana” and the race is on to the finish. “EOL Soulfrito” totals 34 minutes but it has not one moment’s bloat—it lifts you into a realm where time has no meaning. In some sense, it may be Louie Vega’s current take on the long twelve inch remixes of a certain era, but it is light years beyond that. An astounding achievement.

Such Hot Blood, Airborne Toxic Event (Island)—Based on the quality of ATE’s songs and singing, of their instrumental virtuosity and its cohesion into a readily identifiable sound, the electric insurgency that multiples the power of the songs’ antiwar, pro-kid ideology, their willingness to tackle big dark stuff (like death, a preoccupation here, not for the first time) and the brightest lights they can find (like, uh, life and that’s all the time) , they’re one of the great contemporary rock bands. Like all the rest, though, they’ve made do with a largish cult. But if you don’t know about Airborne Toxic Event and nevertheless once upon a time expected the best rock to be driven by intelligence as well as flash, complexity and simplicity at the same time, to mix a sense of triumph and defeat into a bittersweet damned delight, you probably need to get hold of this. It’ll get hold of you quick enough after that. It might even return some of the youthful energy you’ve been missing. 
Apocalypse, Thundercat (Brainfeeder)—The son and brother of renowned jazz drummers, Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) is known for his chops on bass and has toured with the likes of Suicidal Tendencies and Stanley Clarke and worked with rapper Earl Sweatshirt. But there’s little showing off here. The focus is on his near-falsetto vocals as beats and keyboards work and prod the edges to concoct a sweet center (“Can you hear the sound of infinity?”). Only “Oh Sheit It’s X”—a hedonistic club jam that a time machine could make into a teenage Prince fronting Return to Forever—is musically catchy in the traditional sense but Thundercat’s music is all heart and soul, not esoteric homework. The spirit of magic and loss stemming from the death last year at age 22 of prime collaborator Austin Peralta hovers throughout, fully emerging in the final track, a beautiful tribute to friendship: “A Message For Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void.”

Darkly Sparkly, Tiny Horse ( of Kansas City’s biggest voices—that of the one-of-a-kind organizer, bandleader and encyclopedia of other women’s voices, Abigail Henderson—has been ravaged by a five-year fight with cancer. Still, Henderson uses her new voice to make some of the most beautiful music of her career. The quiet struggles in these generally spare, delicate tracks haunt but push for new ground. “I’m no ghost,” Henderson cries early on. By the rocker “Wind & Rain,” she’s left no doubt.

The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters, Gil Scott-Heron (BGP, UK)—Gil Scott-Heron did almost as much to invent post-Sly black rock as George Clinton and at least as much to force the emergence of rap and hip-hop as the Last Poets. He was the closest popular music came to reflecting the Black Arts Movement, and these tracks are probably the most coherent expression of the jazz-rock aesthetic ever made. (Maybe that last is only because Miles Davis didn’t sing, but... well, Miles didn’t.) His energy is wild but not just furious. His abiding respect for John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, black poets and the people of the ghetto is abundant here, as is his insistence on calling the white supremacist culture on its bullshit. All this is beautifully expressed over three discs that include his first version of  “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Pieces of a Man,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” and the ever-relevant “No Knock.” The alternate version of his first album, Free Will, feels a bit like padding. But “Artificialness,” the single he made with Pretty Purdie and the Playboys, is revelatory.

Everyman, Laura Tsaggaris (Overtime)--The flexing muscle of the title track answers blind power with burning guitar and a list of demands, advising, “Don’t make me call you out . . . . we’re here to help you if we can.” That mix of personal and political is typical of this D.C.-based songwriter’s work, alongside a notion that love demands an ongoing fight. Such contradictions allow the edgy confession “I Am Not In Control” to shine like a punchy summer single, horns heralding new possibility. On the rocking centerpiece, "Ask For It," Tsaggaris chides, “Ain’t no good reason why people should read your mind,” before calling her listeners to come on up and stake their claim.

Bionic Metal, Mic Crenshaw (—“Who’s this black man doing rock & roll?” asks veteran Portland rapper Mic Crenshaw. He’s the guy who takes the likes of Billy Squire and Bachman Turner Overdrive and crams it into tracks until it mutates into a perfect bed for his skilled flow at the mic while adding his own engaging pop sensibility in order to help him convey blistering revolutionary manifestos with a love of family and fun, especially riding Harleys. “Free my mind, let it ride.” Check out the video at

American Kid, Patty Griffin (New West)—It’s framed as a meditation on the loss of her father, and several songs do touch on his life and passing, especially “Go Where You Want to Go” and  “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone”--and particularly boisterously on  “Irish Boy.” But as a whole, American Kid speaks to the issues that have always animated Griffin: Racism in the harrowing “Ohio,” about a runaway slave; human brutality on “Wild Old Dog,” possibly the saddest song she or anyone else ever came up with; the agony of romantic error, on “That Kind of Lonely,” an exhausted commentary on the kind of party you definitely don’t want to wind up at: “Everyone in this room wanted to be somewhere else.” So yeah, Robert Plant sings on a few songs, but that ain’t the point. He’s there because Patty Griffin is one of our great musical treasures, as writer and singer. That’s why you should be there, too.

Vives en Mi, La Maquinaria Nortena (Azteca)--This Chihuahua-style (hard driving sax with that accordion) norteno band keeps the beats strong and the rhythms at a gallop (with lots of drum fills, splashes of cymbal and flashes of guitar and accordion), even on what you might call the slow songs. And though the themes stick close to broken hearts, the whole wide world of causes feels quietly understated throughout, nowhere more poignantly than the album centerpiece, “Ya Nada Paso.”

Trials and Tribulations, Ace Hood (Cash Money)--Three days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Florida rapper Ace Hood’s new album declares “God bless Trayvon Martin/I’m in my hoodie/Another innocent young brother who met a bully” while linking that crime to a whole list of ways “the government [tries] to disguise truth”—from the real reasons for Section 8, food stamps, drop outs and unemployment to the unresolved meanings of Emmett Till’s murder and Martin Luther King’s dreams. Subtly rich layers of sound stay focused on a lean, muscular delivery, emphasizing Hood’s lyric spitting as a class conscious war with the system. That said, Hood also makes this album extraordinarily intimate—returning often to the loss of his daughter, Lyric, and his dreams for his surviving daughter, Sailor, and paying loving tribute to his mother (and mothers everywhere) with Betty Wright’s testifying response all but stealing the show. That moment alone all but compensates for, early on, one of the ugliest bits of misogyny ever dropped by Lil’ Wayne.

Above, Mad Season (Columbia Legacy Deluxe Edition)—Legendary grunge group featuring Mike McCready, Layne Staley, John “Baker” Saunders and Barrett Martin. You could make a case that Staley, one of the greatest hard rock singers, never sounded better than he does here, a gorgeous last gasp from the depths of his self-inflicted doom. McCready is McCready, already the inviolate rock’n’roller at the heart of Pearl Jam, and Martin helped put the groove in grunge with Screaming Trees. Bassist John “Baker” Saunders, almost forty years old when the others were still in their 20s, a bassist good enough for Hubert Sumlin’s band, held it all together. Above, their only studio album, gave them a hit single in “River of Deceit.” What this deluxe edition has to offer is something else: Mad Season live at the Moore, a Seattle theater, not just on video but also on disc. There are moments here that blow the roof off your expectations, no matter how high they might be, particularly Staley’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier,” far better than what they caught in the studio for the John Lennon tribute album. The music is grunge basking in its moment of glory and pulling itself apart at the same time. This is some of the greatest music made in the ‘90s.

Small Town Talk, Shannon McNally (Sacred Sumac Music)--McNally, unofficial current queen of the New Orleans scene, made this album as a tribute to the songs and style of the greater writer-performer Bobby Charles, and she covers almost all his important work, minus “See You Later Alligator.” It wasn’t intended as an elegy, but try convincing yourself of that when you hear “I Must Be in a Good Place Now,” the finale and a love song at all sorts of levels. Other gems include the title track, “Love in the Worst Degree,” “Street People” and “Homemade Songs.” This is a three-fold triumph—for McNally, Charles and the arranger, Dr. John. And just like that, Shannon McNally finally has an album as good as her live performances.

The Truth About Love, Pink (RCA)--This album fights for love, while acknowledging—in its rollicking title track—“It can turn you into a son-of-a-bitch, man.” Though messy and complex, the wide variety of problems tackled here pale next to the anti-suicide cry,” The Great Escape,” co-writer Dan Wilson’s piano all but making it an answer record to “Streets of Fire.” Reasons to live come up front with the opening rocker, “Are We All We Are,” which delivers an expansive, energized and rowdy sense of community (followed, appropriately enough, by the anthem “Blow Me”).

Cosy Moments, Kinski (Kill Rock Stars)—Years ago when we first encountered Kinski they were opening for Tool and they not only didn’t have vocals but their only words to the audience were “Don’t worry, Tool will be out soon.” No hurry. Their blasted, fuzzed-out, stop and start instrumentals were a worthy set up. Now on their sixth album, they’ve mutated into a song-oriented band with effectively murky vocals while retaining their furious energy—it’s just contained in a smaller cage. The striking cover photo by Matthew Porter serves as an apt metaphor—a muscle car in full flight above the pavement but about to crash.

Unapologetic, Rihanna (Def Jam)--Club-bumping songs like “Fresh Off the Runway,” “Numb” and “Pour It Up” eradicate the distinctions between star-making machinery and any other capitalist hustle, setting up a series of gorgeous but disturbing ballads—most pointedly the cry for direction on “What Now?” and the inability to flip the script on disaster in “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary.”

Keep It Down, Lorenzo Wolff ( helps those who hype the sons of RRC, but it’s easy when the work is this good. A bass player by rep, Wolff’s guileless vocal style suits these intimate portraits of characters struggling to speak truths others would rather not hear. The doo wop-accented tale of date rape, “Big Clumsy Hands,” and the secret life lived in the all-but-whispered “Quietly” take the intimacy to its most vulnerable places. The rocking album closer, “I-95”, fights for what “matters to me” no matter how the world wants to damp that down. As on so many fine records, that closing fight adds another level of meaning to the album opener, “A-Sides,” a Jersey Shore rocker that insists, “Turn it up a little bit louder, turn it up, turn it up, TURN IT UP!”

Southeastern, Jason Isbell (Southeastern Records)--By the time you hit the fight with cancer in “Elephant,” it’s clear that this quieter, more overtly introspective outing by Isbell packs a punch as forceful as anything he’s done. So the big sound and vision of the rocker that follows, “Flying Over Water,” comes as a welcome shift but no surprise. The epic tale, “Live Oak,” and the utterly contemporary murder ballad, “Yvette,” offer fresh horizons for one of our most visionary (and still young) songwriters.

Echoes of Indiana Avenue, Wes Montgomery (Resonance)—Indiana Avenue was the street in segregated 1950s Indianapolis where a flourishing jazz scene launched the careers of the three Montgomery brothers, Freddie Hubbard, and J.J. Johnson. These never before heard recordings, half of them live in an Indiana Street club, predate guitarist Wes Montgomery’s previously known recording career.  Includes a duet version of Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight,” where Montgomery goes deep to find new echoes of beauty in that chestnut while organist Melvin Rhyne pushes him before taking his own sublime solo. The CD concludes with “After Hours Blues,” which reveals a raw and raucous side to Montgomery’s playing.

13 Live, Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians (Blind Pig)—Jimmy Vivino, best known as Conan O’Brien’s bandleader and arranger, actually has served a variety of artists, (Johnny Copeland, Johnny Johnson, the Fab Faux, Al Kooper and the Rock Bottom Remainders), as guitarist, keyboardist and even drummer.  He’s a superb player but what makes him one is as much heart as chops. 13 Live,  his solo album debut, proves the point. He and his group (Catherine Russell sings lead on about half the tracks) dig into blues, soul and rock classics: “Soulful Dress,” “From A Buick Six,” “Shape I’m In,” “Fast Life Boogie.” This isn’t a TV band, it’s the real Vivino, the one who’s played with all sorts of fine bands and singers ever since he was a teenager. Defining the core of it is Jimmy’s liner note essay, a cross-cultural personal music history that ends by explaining  that the Black Italian he has most in mind is his son.

Regardless, Thea Gilmore (Fulfill [UK])—This is the sound of Thea stretching, adding to her folk and rock based songs with occasional strings and modern studio flourishes. Certainly, real credit is due to arranger Pete Whitfield (Plan B) and Danish producers The Supplier.  But the music’s center is the intensity that Gilmore brings to her lyrics and singing, the no-bullshit attitude and her utter confidence that what she can do with her voice and imagination will bring her and us through the riskiest passages.  “Something to Sing About” and “Love Came Looking for Me” are hit singles everywhere on a better planet than this one.

One True Vine, Mavis Staples (ANTI)—Her second solo album in collaboration with Jeff Tweedy returns Mavis for the first time in a long time to what’s essentially gospel territory. She may be the finest traditional gospel voice we have left—depending on how Aretha’s feeling this minute—and Tweedy has, surprisingly, come up with a batch of totally appropriate songs, especially the beautiful “Jesus Wept.” They also bring it back home with a few older gospel tunes, notably “I Woke Up This Morning with Jesus on My Mind” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today.”

Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves (Mercury)--“Same hurt in every heart,” Musgraves acknowledges just before the chorus of her single “Merry Go ‘Round,” a haunting portrait of “country” living all the more powerful because the piano and banjo arrangement keeps things light while the singer delivers unpleasant truths. At the slightly louder musical extreme here, the nicotine-fueled, blues rocking, work anthem, “Blowing Smoke” celebrates a sense of unity (and a sense of humor) in the face of everyone “out here going broke.” When she rallies a chorus to shout, “We all say that we’ll quit someday/When our nerves ain’t shot/And our hands don’t shake,” there’s power in those voices and that vision. Near the end, another sing-a-long, “Follow Your Arrow,” says that someday might just turn out to be real.

What’s In Between, Pedaljets (Electric Moth Records)--“I’m gonna change this to a dream that never dies/I’m gonna punch that fucker right between the eyes,” goes the refrain of the propulsive opener. What follows sounds more than a little like the Stooges and the Beatles hashing out all the obstacles to landing that punch—the many misdirections of the catchy, yet pleading, “Conversations”; the heart’s confusion on the stately, “Goodbye to All of That”; the loss of direction in “Measurement”; and the allure of well-intentioned fantasies in the haunting “Some Kind of One.” Through all the fears and doubts, the will to fight remains the key, giving this veteran Kansas City rock and roll band its hardest rocking, most lush, eloquent and unifying statement yet. 

This Beautiful Game, Sean Sennet (SSNA001)--Almost certainly the best album ever made by  a working music journalist. Sennett’s album with the band Crush 76 scored a couple of hits with “The Sun King” and “Sometimes Angels,” back in ’98 and ’99. This Beautiful Game, Sennett’s third album, is understated classic rock, not daring but brimming with energy and love. Sennett is a very good music journalist  (see the website of his owned and operated magazine, Time Off) but he’s at least as good at writing songs. He fills songs like “Sometimes (The World Kicks at Your Seams)” and “There’s a Girl at the Cinema Who Looks Like Beth Orton” with subtle insights and wry reflections, and “The Thing That Gets Me Down is the Boredom” uses garage rock accents to beat back the ennui. (No U.S. release, but all three of Sennett’s albums are available at iTunes, etc. So is his 2011 book, Off the Record: 25 Years of Music Street Press, edited with Simon Groth.)

Carpe Diem, Karyn White (Lightyear)--When Karyn White’s L.A. Reid and Babyface-produced debut arrived, there was really nothing like it. Her first R&B #1, “The Way You Love Me,” brought a disarming playfulness to a hot dance floor, while her second #1, “Superwoman,” managed to deliver a “Purple Rain”-sized and remarkably grown up demand for understanding.  In her six year run (which also found her working extensively with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), White’s sinewy alto proved to be among the most versatile in the business, and eighteen years later, her sound’s even richer. Compared to those old records, Carpe Diem is lean and sparely arranged, foregrounding that voice. But the opening call for unity, “Sista Sista,” makes it clear White’s picking up where she left off conceptually, and the summer single of a title track defines the confidence and energy needed to get the job done. The ballads seem to have gained the most with the passing years, nowhere better illustrated than on the grief-stricken prayer of a ballad, “My Heart Cries.”

Brighter Days: JJ Grey & Mofro Live (MVDvisual)—DVD of a 2011 Atlanta live show surrounded by a loving travelogue of Grey’s north Florida roots—“Where the swamp meets the ocean meets the country.” He’s got an attitude about being dismissed as a “DirtFloorCracker” but sympathizes with the haters who haven’t yet received the information he’s putting out. Like on “Country Ghetto,” where Grey sings: “Love touches us all yes we’re black and we’re white/Out here in the cut living side by side/So never mind what you’ve seen and just forget what you’ve heard/Another ignorant redneck? Just some Hollywood words.” Or on “Lochloosa,” a slice of country environmentalism that serves as a sequel to Ronnie Van Zant’s “All I Could Is Write About It,” only this time the perpetrators have a name: Disney. Grey can sing as well as shout and his Memphis-style horn band sounds much like the food, the waterways, the love and hate that the songs reflect.

The Wetter the Better / Left Coast Live, Wet Willie (BGO)—Wet Willie stands as a clear number four in the Southern rock pantheon which ain’t bad when you’re sitting behind only Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and the Allman Brothers. And, despite the prominence of front man Jimmy Hall, it was a band as evidenced by the fact that guitarist Ricky Hirsch and keyboardist Mike Duke did most of the writing. Wetter is a near classic from 1974 that is more concise than most other Southern bands of the era because it feels the gravitational pull of Stax and gospel. Left Coast Live is a 1977 LA show that mostly covers Wetter (sometimes improving it) while adding covers of Jimmy Reed and Little Milton and topping it off with the group’s lone Top 10 hit, “Keep On Smilin’.”

How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, Amy Speace (1-2-3-4-Go!)—The flat-out undeniable masterpiece here is “The Sea and the Shore,” a duet with John Fullbright that pulls out new stuff from both of them. It’s a dialogue, fitting for a song that captures some of Speace’s theatrical roots, which blend surprisingly easily with her Americana base (best represented here by “The Fortunate Ones,” already recorded by one of the great song-finders, Judy Collins).  These songs definitely tell tales, but the unmistakable message of these eleven artful entanglements is just how daring, confident, ambitious and beautiful Amy Speace’s songs have been.

Bona Fide, Chris Thomas King (21st Century Blues—download only)—Traditional blues from “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to “The Wind Cries Mary” with originals and a Dust Bowl ballad in between. Brilliantly put together by King, once a young turk among blues guitarists, now a one man band and record label.

The Elvis Club, The Del Lords (Megaforce)--In 1984, this band’s opening salvos featured a two-fisted reworking of Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” followed by the bitter bravado of “Get Tough.” If anything, the band’s first studio album in over two decades does just as much heavy lifting, but the struggles tend to feel more personal. Rockers like “When the Drugs Kick In,” “Chicks, Man!” and “You Can Make a Mistake One Time” contemplate levels of personal dissolution made all the more real with age. Tender moments, like Scott Kempner’s “All of My Life,” and “Letter (Unmailed),” carry a seasoned grace. As a whole, this extraordinary album benefits from Eric Ambel’s deep crunching production, nowhere pushed to greater limits than the working class fever dreams of “Me and the Lord Blues.”  

Annie Up, Pistol Annies (Sony Nashville/RCA); Like A Rose, Ashley Monroe (Warner Brothers)—LA Times critic Ann Powers recently gave well-deserved credit to Miranda Lambert for the wave of women currently reminding Nashville that country has a glorious history of speaking everyday peoples’ truths. This idea is turned into a Jerry Lee Lewis-hard anthem with the Annies’ (featuring Lambert and Monroe) “Hush Hush.” Other highlights on this strong second record include the tenderly detailed ballad “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty At All” and the lonesome meditation “Girls Like Us.” Like A Rose pulls the most achingly sweet voice out of the Annies and allows her to reveal herself as much more than a pretty dress—as she sings on “Used,” “I’ve got some buttons missing and there are a couple of stains and places where the fabric has been torn.” Standouts include the raucous plea for her boyfriend to try “Weed Instead of Roses” and the slower honky tonk of “Two Weeks Late.”

Suga Top, Poogie Bell Band (Moosicus)—The latest (and best) in a series of fine solo albums by Marcus Miller’s former drummer begins with “Greasy Chicken Scratch,” a place where the sound of nasty keyboards and guitars meld until they become one with the feeling of getting a pork chop sandwich stuck in your teeth. That echoes faintly even in the gentle, elegant “Without You” featuring vocalist Mey and the pure pop single feel of “Candy Bar.” Elsewhere, it’s covers of Erykah Badu, Jaco Pastorius, and Patrice Rushen, straightahead horn jazz, a piano trio, and the experimentation Bell learned from his former boss. As a drummer, Poogie calls attention to himself without showing off. As a composer, we’ve got to admit it’s getting better, getting better every day.

Sports, Huey Lewis & the News (Capitol)—Sweets for my sweet, genial almost to a fault, record-making as craft instead of contradiction. No wonder it sold ten million copies. Wouldn’t have meant much if the songs weren’t so good but there’s more to it. Not just Chris Hayes’s guitar shredding on “I Need a New Drug” or the cover of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” but, lurking there in the middle of the record, the harrowing tale of the wounded warrior, “Walking on a Thin Line.” It starts out slowly, almost aimlessly, before exploding in your head like the AK-47 round it’s meant to be. “Don’t you know me I’m the boy next door/The one you find so easy to ignore/Is that what I was fighting for?” snarls Lewis, his persona as a suburban golfer actually upping the ante.

Little Blue Soldier, Cher UK (Such a Wussy)--Austin-based Mike McCoy has helmed this uncompromising experiment in garage pop since the early 90s, with dozens of band members playing key roles. The infectious horn, guitar and bass-driven title track rejects Blue-minded groupthink as surely as Red. The surf party, “Peace, Love and Fun in the Sun,” rejects mindlessness as an escape, while the dragster instrumental “Reagan Versus NoLa” ends with thanks to Mr. Morning in America for new levels of American denial. “Denny’s After Closing” is a fumbling heartache of a ballad dedicated to loved ones just barely hanging on, featuring beautifully understated fiddle by the Wilders’ Betse Ellis.

SLY Reimagined, Global Noize (Zoho Roots)—Keyboardist Jason Miles’s group Global Noize takes classic Sly and reboots it in an attempt to use its visions to heal the world. Aided by a cast of dozens, including Roberta Flack, Nona Hendryx, and original Sly drummer Greg Errico, GN lets Sly’s intense focus on the core of a song wander, almost jazzlike at times, without ever losing the groove or the transformative spirit of tunes now almost a half century old yet seemingly ripped from today’s headlines about Turkey or Egypt (“Stand!”). DJ Logic’s turntables and Miles’s synths give a 21st century sensibility but what really makes this feel up to date is that the music is presented as if it’s brand new and it allows you to find your own way to its messages, so powerful that two of them are presented in multiple versions: “It’s A Family Affair” and “The Same Thing” (The same thing that makes you laugh/Could make you cry/And the same food you eat to live/Can make you die).

The Messenger, Johnny Marr (Sire/Ada)—Rock’s most underrated guitarist (he’s been smoking since the beginning, with the Smiths) is also a great songwriter. These tunes and performances reflect his always audible base in the glam rock of Marc Bolan, as well as his staunchly Labour (and not New Labour, either) politics. A tough little genius.

Blades of Grass, Dirty Streets (Alive/Naturalsound)—Two steps from the blues, Mississippi power trio strains against the limits of their chops, occasionally touching the hem of the garment of their idol Jeff Beck. And they notice what’s going on outside the window of the train they’re on—“Living in a world of underpaid teachers/Congressmen are getting’ rich/Sitting in the bleachers” while we’re just “waitin’ on a leader.” It all peaks on “Try Harder,” when singer/guitarist Justin Roland snarls over a high-stepping riff about a society which pushes you into poverty and then tells you to “try harder.” Blades of Grass is raw realism, yet it  also throws off sparks of psychedelia without a hint of self-consciousness, one of many signs of a young band growing up before our eyes.

Sly & Robbie Present Stepper Takes the Taxi (MVDaudio)—The approach on this instrumental CD is always playful, inviting, wordlessly invoking the spirit of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” or Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  Gulliame “Stepper” Briard is a French saxophonist/keyboardist who was given access to classic and new recorded riddims produced by Sly and Robbie over which he and several Jamaicans create an airy top over a funky bottom. Often (“Frenchman in Kingston,” “Matera Lounge”) there is the feel of a French cafĂ© where, for unknown reasons, a world class reggae band is playing. Mixed by Briard’s fellow Frenchman, Fabwise, who keeps what could have been lightweight and flimsy into something razor sharp and, in its own way, compelling.

Lifer, Ricky Byrd (KAYOS)—Brilliant Blackheart, the guitar voice that blew up the set in response to Joan Jett’s vocal, turns in his first solo record. What was he waiting for? A set of songs good enough to make it worthwhile, and he found them. They add up to a cycle of songs about New York rock band life from the ‘70s to now, from the risky “Let’s Get Gone” to the now-I-get-it “Married Man.” It’s also a paean to the heyday of glam, when Byrd’s sensibility was formed at Max’s Kansas City and Bowery dives long before CBGB’s.  At his core, he’s still the same guy but now he knows a lot of secrets. But you gotta pay your dues...which is why, I suppose, “Turnstile ‘01” ends the album with a confessional tale told on a slowed down subway car.

Aztec Jazz, Tom Russell with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble (Frontera Music)—Russell’s gotten as much out of his most recent trip to Norway as Little Stevie got out of his. Backed by guitarist Thad Beckman and a 31 piece horn orchestra, Russell explores “Juarez,” a city he loves that has been demolished by war as certainly as Baghdad, the lures and injustices of “Nina Simone,” busking at “St. Olav’s Gate” in Oslo, the contradictions of the ‘60s or was that the ‘70s in “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam.” And last, there’s “Jai Alai,” about the price people pay to make a living while others are blind to their great gracefulness.  The best work of his career.

The Gospel Truth/Soul Hits/McCanna, Les McCann (BGO)—Three-fer that finds pianist McCann, who achieved fame with the classic “Compared to What,” exploring the bounds of the piano trio. Disc one is traditional church music remade for the nightclub, disc two is soul jazz hits of a half century ago, and disc three is mostly McCann originals. In each case, there is some help (guitar, percussion) but the essence is the trio and it’s a revelation to hear everything from hymns to Jimmy Smith to Broadway show tunes extruded through the soulful, energetic hands of Les McCann.

Guided Tour, The New Gary Burton Quartet (Mack Avenue)—The master vibraphonist just turned seventy and you might expect him to play on the cool side, a place where his instrument is traditionally comfortable. Not at all—this music seethes and erupts, pushed forward by the drumming of Antonio Sanchez.  Keeping Burton young is guitarist Julian Lage, a prodigy (an Academy Award-nominated documentary about him was made when he was eight years old) who joined the group at seventeen and now, eight years later, shows not just the chops you might expect but a soulful inventiveness that many never achieve. Highlights include “Remembering Tano,” inflected with Burton’s love of tango and “Jane Fonda Called Again,” a rave-up given extra spice by Scott Colley’s understated bass solo.

Lip Lock, Eve (From the Rib/Red)--Over a decade after her last full-length release, Eve returns with an athletic, often Caribbean-hook-laden set of fight songs. Though stylistically harder and faster than her elder sisters, her expressive rhyme style hearkens back to the playfulness of Salt’N’Pepa, allowing her to move naturally from the untempered boast “She Bad Bad” to the arm over the shoulder coaching of “Make It Out This Town.” Her duet with Missy Elliott, “Wanna Be,” becomes an anthem of self-empowerment, and Snoop Dogg’s guesting on “Mama in the Kitchen”—“whippin’, we flippin’”—cheers her dance floor gumbo as hard work well worth the wait.

The Ides, Me Like Bees (Loveway Records)--The first full-length release from these Joplin, Missouri rockers prominently features the band’s tornado-relief single, “Naked Trees,” a surprisingly delicate contemplation of what just happened and what do we do now. The answer is the rest of the record, a rambunctious and adventurous fight for community in a world of individual nightmares. Hooks abound, but, for a starting point, it’s hard to beat the heavy hitting, “Joseph Jones,” a meditation on the homeless as vanguard of a better world.

Songs from the Barn, Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools (Leroy)—Southside Johnny has found his best collaborator since Miami Steve Van Zandt in keyboardist and writing partner Jeff Kazee. This album was recorded at Levon Helm’s barn—thus the title. If it’s a roots record, it’s a version of roots much like that of Levon, too, including a “Mexican Waltz,” covers of Dylan (“Tom Thumb’s Blues” arranged around string bass, barroom piano and harmonica), and of mighty New Orleans soulman Chris Kenner and foundational rock and roller Bo Diddley, and finally, a Stephen Foster song. The highpoint, “Winter in Yellow Knife,” is about a suicidal low point, the kind of contradiction that animates all the great blues-based artists. A very different version of one of the most underrated vocalists  still hanging in there.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Some Thoughts To the Wonder

I've just spent three hours in my hometown, sitting in the dark in the prairie breeze, talking about urgent things going on in people's lives right here, right now. But somewhere in the back of my mind, informing the whole thing, was the movie I saw last night, Terrence Malick's To the Wonder.

See, it was shot here--principally here in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Paris, France. The notion of a movie shot between these two places, drawing parallels between these two places--as it does, particularly in the closing sequences--is seemingly absurd to a Bartian (that's how we call us natives), and, yet, that's fundamental to the beauty of the damn thing. As rapper Rakim once said, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at," and Malick's movie is all over that notion.

If you're familiar with Malick, who I first met at our local Penn Theater, under a marquee that read "Bartlesville's own Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven" (or something to that effect), then you know he's about as much of a literary naturalist as any filmmaker ever. By that I mean he subordinates his plot and characters to the environment that surrounds them. I went to that movie as a kid, expecting some "local movie" like Where the Red Fern Grows, and found myself plunged into this wondrous world of prairie imagery--flora, fauna and a great big fire. Almost in the background, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams schemed against Sam Shepard. I wasn't sure what to make of the movie, but it made me think about people as a part of their environment, which included the class differences that made Gere and Adams resent Shepard, made him seem doomed and out of touch with his Victorian trappings out in the great wide open. I never forgot it, particularly the dominant memoir-like narration by the brilliant child actor Linda Manz.

Last night, I saw Malick's new movie, To the Wonder, and it works in much the same fundamental way. But it's a very different movie, and in some ways more difficult. It's a more extreme form of cinema. The scripted intrigue of Days of Heaven has given way to an almost unmoored series of dream images. Visual refrains (perhaps unfortunately but also purposefully) call to mind perfume ads, a beautiful woman running backward through a field in a simple, flowing gown. A man, an iconic stoic male, looking off somewhere in the distance--with her but not able to show the same abandon as he luxuriates in the moment. In some ways, Malick has built a whole movie around these kinds of images of moments that happen all too rarely if they ever happen at all.

But he uses these images of contrasting abandon and controlled desire as the basic theme for a whole lot of conflict. The world around the lovers is filled with others engaged in their own struggles. Ben Affleck, the male lead, tests soil samples, finding out just how disastrously the petrochemicals that have made this land rich have poisoned the environment. A priest tries to save these same folk, who are only slightly more lost than he is (and many of them are not only very far gone spiritually but near death physically). One of the most pointed scenes is when he hides in his living room from an addict parishioner who has finally taken him up on his offers of help.

In the end, To the Wonder treats the same issues as Days of Heaven--romantic love at the mercy of intersecting systems (human and environmental) that make it all but impossible. This time, however, instead of spinning everything headlong into tragedy, Malick has taken a greater risk. He means for this movie to play like a love song. You understand the story because you give it your own, and of course it ends in a broken heart, but at least it doesn't leave you all alone. If you forget the people on each side of you in the theater, even that relentless prairie wind in your ear serves as proof.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Weathering the Starkblast--Why I Love Stephen King, #19

                My enthusiasm over Stephen King’s new book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, added one more file to the very tall stack of books I’ll most likely never write…but if I lived on an island…. 

                It’s this wonderful tale within a tale within a tale, on one level about storytelling and why we need it. There are reasons within reasons here, but in all practical terms, the stories are used to keep spirits up while a terrible ice twister of a storm, called a starkblast, rages outside. The Wind Through the Keyhole is also this much welcome dip back into the warm colloquialisms of Mid-World, a post-apocalyptic universe parallel to that universe in which all of the rest of his fiction takes place, that one that looks almost just like our own.  When I finished the Dark Tower series, the first time (if I’m lucky, I’ll visit again), more than anything, I knew I was going to miss that voice, that palaver of gunslingers, billy-bumblers, the Beams that tenuously hold everything together, and that ornery old myth of the Man Jesus.

That Mid-World slang always reminds me of a complaint King shared with Amy Tan in his book On Writing—they commiserated over the fact that interviewers never asked them about the love of language that drove them to write. Proof of that love of language is all over the Dark Tower books, just as unquestionable as it is in the work of one of the writers who inspired him, J.R.R. Tolkien. 

But that’s just one of many things people don’t talk about when they cover Stephen King. Some people write concordances to Stephen King’s work and others write about how his childhood shaped his writing, but what I haven’t seen (with one notable exception in an essay by Sarah Langan) is someone tackle his significance in the context of the past 40 years of popular culture, much less the relatively brief life of modern literature. From my perspective, he’s a singular character, not only constantly redefining the boundaries of my favorite genre of storytelling but also keeping the very potential of literature alive for a great cross section of the public not reached by most literature. He does all of this while maintaining a balancing act I learned from my greatest writing mentor—he reaches for the widest possible audience without ever talking beneath the smartest reader.

King seems to me a uniquely important torchbearer for the pop culture explosion in the 1960s. Whatever political naivete some may see in him, both his lack of privilege growing up and the ongoing perspective of a horror writer keeps him focused on the contradiction to any ideal. He entertains few of the self-serving Great White Man/Lone Ranger illusions that plague the vision of his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, or  constantly hang like an albatross over another contemporary, Bruce Springsteen.   

Since the relationship between vampire hunters Ben and Mark in Salem's Lot first echoed and affirmed my own double-vision living with my newly single father, I’ve been aware of the centrality of relationships in King’s work. In a society filled with individualistic delusion, King’s characters triumph (when they triumph) through their need for one another. Though the Dark Tower’s Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, is doomed to be alone, his greatest successes only come with the help of his band of travelers, his ka-tet.  I have always thought The Stand was not so much his greatest book as his greatest over-reach, but I loved the sense of community he cobbles together. It’s a community that probably comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (i.e., it’s of the genre, which shows how genre writing has been an asset to his approach), but in King’s world, it’s a community foreshadowed by the family that comes together with Dick Holloran in The Shining and is echoed time and again, among the kids in It, the bands of fighters in those A and B-side books, Desperation and The Regulators, and all of those other rag-tag bands in Derry and Castle Rock who inevitably face off their greatest fears together.  Not coincidentally, those groups tend to include a writer and a cast of characters not unlike the great cross-section of America he knows reads the books. I don’t see that as contrivance or solipsism. I see that as evidence of a supremely self-aware artist (an author who wrote one of the best books of non-fiction about his genre at the height of his early career) who writes as an act of faith— if not in the supernatural, in his need for others (give or take Misery's Annie Wilkes).

All of my former students can testify that I talk about Stephen King more often than any other writer. The most obvious reason for that is that he’s just about the only author I can mention whom they’ll know at least a little something about. But a secondary reason goes hand in hand with that one—I know that most of them will not perceive him as a “legitimate” writer, and most who like him will only acknowledge him as a guilty pleasure. If there’s one lesson Stephen King taught me (hand in hand with rock and roll and hip hop and every form of music that feeds them and every form of music fed by them), it’s that the legitimacy of my passions should never be in question. What matters is how I use those passions to weather the starkblast--both for me and my community, both (whether we own it or not) all the richer for this man’s work.