Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band - In the Jungle, Babe and Express Yourself (Warner Brothers, 1969 & 1970; 1997)

The first commercially-successful R&B band on the Warner Brothers label, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were an unusually large Los Angles-based musical unit whose personnel varied greatly during its existence. Guitarist, singer, group leader, and mainstay Wright had Mississippi roots but moved to the West Coast with his family at a relatively young age. Influenced by his mentor, singer and pianist Jesse Belvin, he began his career working with vocal groups and eventually started his own aggregation, Charles Wright and the Wright Sounds, which played in the Angeleno club circuit and included several musicians who, in time, would become the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. They eventually made connections with influential disc jockeys, and a chance meeting with Bill Cosby led to their selection as the backing band on his Silver Throat LP as well as a contract with the comedian's label, Warner Brothers. At this time, core group members included John Rayford and Bill Cannon on saxophones, Gabriel Flemings and Joe Banks on trumpets, Ray Jackson on trombone, Melvin Dunlap on bass, and James Gadson on drums. However, as previously mentioned, the lineup was subject to significant fluctuation during the 1967-1971 period in which they recorded five albums for Warners.

Their 1969 effort, In the Jungle, Babe, was their third LP and technically released under the name of "The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band." While it definitely has its moments and the punchy single "Till You Get Enough" rightfully earned itself a #12 position on the R&B charts, too often the record sounded more like a collection of good musical ideas rather than a collection of good songs. In other words, the instrumentalists usually play with great skill, but the performances themselves frequently don't go anywhere and instead just funk around to little purpose. "I'm a Midnight Mover" is alright but hardly supersedes Wilson Pickett's original. The cover of "Light My Fire" bears the distinction of being the most languid interpretation of this song that I've heard. (For a much more interesting adaptation by a black Los Angeles band, check out the second track on Africa's Music from "Lil Brown.") Although the message of "Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers)," whose lyrics tackle the thorny issue of race relations, is potent, it gets lost in the mushy production. The instrumental take on Sly & the Family Stone's "Everyday People" starts out well enough, and then it just inexplicably fades out after less than two-and-a-half minutes. What a tease. The lyrics of "Must Be Your Thing" are not especially imaginative, and it comes off as rather derivative compared to what other funk bands were doing at the time. "Love Land," a #23 R&B and #16 Pop hit, would not have sounded out of place as a Motown single and is enjoyable enough, while the instrumental "Oh Happy Gabe (Sometimes Blue)" serves as a fine showpiece for Gabriel Flemings' trumpet and the rest of the horn section. In similar fashion to "Midnight Mover," "Twenty-Five Miles" is a decent cover, but not better than Edwin Starr's original. The driving instrumental "The Joker (On a Trip Through the Jungle) does, however, close the LP on a good note, with Wright laying down some nice guitar licks throughout the performance.


The outfit's fourth long player, Express Yourself, released in 1970 and credited to "Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band," is a much more assured work than its predecessor as it consists entirely of Wright's own compositions.
The opener "Road without an End" gets things off to a strong start with the flawless rhythm and horn sections perfectly complementing the track's orchestrated production and yearning vocals. There are many highlights on the truly funky "I Got Love," with the best of them belonging James Gadson's outstanding percussion work. The end result of studio jam sessions, "High as Apple Pie, Slice 1" and "High as Apple Pie, Slice 2" help give this album its mind-expanding credentials and is black psychedelia that compares favorably with early P-Funk. According to the booklet notes, "Slice 2" utilized on this CD reissue is a slightly different and superior mix to what had appeared on the original vinyl. Since it has often been sampled by rap artists, "Express Yourself" is probably Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's best-known side. And why not? It's arguably their finest moment and was a rightful #3 R&B and #12 Pop hit in 1970. "I'm Aware" and "Tell Me What You Want Me to Do" are both mellower performances but don't suffer from the lack of direction that plagues many of the cuts on In the Jungle, Babe.


In the Jungle, Babe
1. Till You Get Enough
2. I'm a Midnight Mover
3. Light My Fire
4. Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers)
5. Everyday People
6. Must Be Your Thing
7. Love Land
8. Oh Happy Gabe (Sometimes Blue)
9. Twenty-Five Miles
10. The Joker (On a Trip Through the Jungle)

Express Yourself (1970)
11. Road without an End
12. I Got Love
13. High as Apple Pie, Slice 1
14. Express Yourself
15. I'm Aware
16. Tell Me What You Want Me to Do
17. High as Apple Pie, Slice 2

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tony Joe White - Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings (Rhino Handmade, 2006)

The recent spate of hot and humid weather we've been having in Chicagoland has put me in the mind of my time spent in Mississippi during the late 1990s, when I got a taste of what the grueling summers in the Deep South could be like. While living in Oxford during my time as a graduate student at Ole Miss, I wasn't the most social person in the world, but mostly because there was so little to do in that two-horse town. Nevertheless, one event that sticks out in my mind was a benefit that took place sometime in the latter half of 1997 in which several fairly prominent musicians performed at a local watering hole to help raise money for writer Robert Palmer's medical bills. I wasn't originally planning on going because most of the featured artists just didn't interest me that much. But when I got a phone call from a girl who I fancied at the time informing me that she and some of her friends were going over to that bar for a few drinks, I changed my mind and went out after all. I didn't make much headway with the girl, but I was fortunate to arrive just as Tony Joe White was beginning his set. At the time, I was familiar with his name as a songwriter, but I just hadn't gotten around to collecting his records yet. After his astounding performance, I realized that I needed to reassess my vinyl acquisition priorities. The man is truly an American treasure with a unique musical vision that incorporates Southern roots music in addition to other diverse elements. Not to mention the fact that he possesses considerable skill as a singer, tunesmith, and guitarist.

As with many artists, White's earlier works are his best. Thus, it should be no surprise that Swamp Music is a true five-star production and everything that a good box set should be. As its subtitle makes clear, this collection gathers together everything that he did for Monument Records between 1966 and 1970, not only including his three outstanding LPs - Black and White, ...Continued, and Tony Joe - but singles, B-sides, and a staggering amount of previously unreleased material as well. These heretofore unissued performances are not limited simply to alternate versions of songs that appeared on the albums, but in many cases consist of songs that for whatever reason were deemed inappropriate for commercial consumption at the time. But wait, there's more, quite a bit more, in fact. In addition to the 32 bonus tracks that supplement the first three CDs, there is also a fourth disc made up entirely of performances that had been languishing in the vaults until they were wisely resurrected for this box set. And on top of nearly five hours of excellent music, Swamp Music also includes very informative and lavishly illustrated booklet notes based mostly upon interviews with White. Put simply, there's a lot to enjoy here.

Although Tony Joe's sound is unmistakable, it's hard to put into words exactly what that sound is. Hailing from the town of Oak Grove in northeast Louisiana, he's from the part of the state that culturally and geographically has much more in common with the Mississippi Delta than with New Orleans. It's bayou country, a part of rural America that helped inspire the greatest works of John Fogerty, even though he had never spent any time living there. Consequently, White's oeuvre can be appreciated as a more authentic representation of the kind of roots-based music that helped make Creedence Clearwater Revival so successful. The big difference, of course, is the fact that Tony Joe had actually experienced the things about which he sang. But back to his sound. Some people will probably take issue with the labels - including blues, country, country rock, 1960s-1970s rock, psychedelic, and even soul - that I've attached to him. But the fact of the matter is that this musician is all of those things...and more. When one is influenced by Lightnin' Hopkins, Bobbie Gentry, John Lee Hooker, and Bob Dylan, gets signed by a Nashville-based label, records with Muscle Shoals session musicians, and utilizes a wah wah pedal (endearingly referred to by White as a "Whomper Stomper"), such a musician obviously defies simple categorization. However, artists like these, who are not so easily pigeonholed, are very appealing to me, even if it sometimes prevents them from being as commercially successful as they should be in spite of their creative triumphs.

Tony Joe White - Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings Disc 1 - Black and White (Monument, 1969; Rhino Handmade, 2006)

There's so much more to Tony Joe White than "Polk Salad Annie," even if this deserving Top Ten hit from 1969 is generally recognized as his definitive song. Featured on his debut LP Black and White, it was his first commercial breakthrough since signing with Monument in 1966. Several other singles had already been released without making a dent in the charts, but it wasn't until White discovered his own voice as a songwriter that he acquired the skills necessary for success on the radio. "Annie" had been extremely well received by audiences while White toiled on the Southern club circuit prior to becoming famous. In fact, it was such a hot item that Monument had to send him promo 45s (originally intended for disc jockeys) to sell to fans in order to satisfy the demand. When certain influential radio stations picked up on what was going on, Tony Joe White's time had finally arrived.

Black and White is certainly an appropriate name for the album, with many first-time listeners of "Polk Salad Annie" assuming the singer to be African American. However, this is not the result of Tony Joe trying to sound like something he is not, but rather an outgrowth of the cultural similarities possessed by working-class whites and blacks in the Deep South. After all, the musician came from a family of cotton-pickers who lived in close proximity to black neighbors with whom they had more in common than not. The music contained on the album is unmistakably Southern, although with White's veritable gumbo of influences, it is difficult, if not downright impossible, to assign an all-encompassing label to these performances. The tracks were recorded in Nashville during sessions in 1968, with Billy Swan as producer and Muscle Shoals veterans David Briggs on keyboards, Norbert Putnam on bass, and Jerry Carrigan on drums all contributing to help make Black and White a rather eclectic affair. As Ben Edmonds' booklet notes put it, "Its meld of funky guitar and horns, soulful strings, and bluesy vocal delivery, with a blast of the Whomper Stomper, announced the arrival of a unique artist."

Specifically, that aforementioned quote is in reference to the LP's opening track, White's eloquent statement on race relations, "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," although it could easily apply to many of its other songs. At any rate, its non-categorizable sound and ahead-of-its-time lyrics conspired to prevent it from becoming a hit, although Dusty Springfield's cover version from 1969 did manage to make it to the #78 position on the US charts. "Soul Francisco," a downhome boy's observations on Haight-Ashbury, was a hit in, of all places, France, where White's compositions finally earned a description that seemed to fit: "Swamp Music." Although Monument could not duplicate its success stateside, it at least gave them confidence in Tony Joe's potential to become a commercial success. The travelogue-like "Aspen Colorado" displays White's skill with ballads, while the fierce "Whompt out on You" and "Don't Steal My Love" focus on his mind-bending wah wah guitar techniques. Try telling me that those licks aren't psychedelic. The aforementioned "Polk Salad Annie" gets its title from a green used in Southern cuisine that is poisonous if not boiled and drained a sufficient number of times and was inspired by people Tony Joe had grown up with in his part of Louisiana. The LP's second half consists of works written by other songwriters, a somewhat curious move considering his lyrical talent, but that's the way the music industry operated at the time. For the most part, these performances work. "Who's Making Love" (done most famously by Johnnie Taylor") and Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back" fit very comfortably with White's style. He even finds success with more restrained material such as "Wichita Lineman" and "Look of Love," although something overly sentimental like "Little Green Apples" just sounds forced.

The bonus tracks include White's first two pre-LP singles "Georgia Pines" b/w "Ten More Miles to Louisiana" (from late 1966) and "I Protest" b/w "A Man Can Only Stand Just So Much Pain" (from early 1968), all of which offer the listener a fascinating opportunity to hear the peformer before he had established his own musical identity. In addition, there are also versions of works in progress that never made it on albums ("Toil & Trouble"), tracks there were presumably recorded before Monument figured out what to do with White ("It's Not What You Got," "Prison Song," "Hung Up On You," "Let the Party Roll On," and "Baby Please Don't Go"), and alternate versions of "Georgia Pines," "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," and "Watching the Trains Go By," the last title being a forthcoming single.

1. Willie and Laura Mae Jones
2. Soul Francisco
3. Aspen Colorado
4. Whompt out on You
5. Don't Steal My Love
6. Polk Salad Annie
7. Who's Making Love
8. Scratch My Back
9. Little Green Apples
10. Wichita Lineman
11. The Look of Love
12. Willie and Laura Mae Jones (alternate version)
13. I Protest
14. A Man Can Only Stand Just So Much Pain
15. Toil & Trouble
16. Georgia Pines
17. It's Not What You Got
18. Prison Song
19. Hung Up on You
20. Ten More Miles to Louisiana
21. Let the Party Roll On
22. Watching the Trains Go By (alternate version)
23. Georgia Pines (alternate version)
24. Baby Please Don't Go

Tony Joe White - Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings Disc 2 - ...Continued (Monument, 1969; Rhino Handmade, 2006)

With the success of "Polk Salad Annie" from his debut LP, Tony Joe White must have earned the confidence of the people at Monument to let him record an album consisting entirely of his own compositions, which is exactly what ...Continued is. It further develops the unique Southern music he had introduced earlier in 1969 on Black and White, although the songs were recorded both in Nashville and Memphis, with the latter location helping to give this work more of a grittier and funkier sound than its predecessor. Although it failed to garner White another hit single under his own name, the record arguably stands as his greatest overall artistic achievement, so consistent is the quality from one track to the next.

This engaging slab of swamp music provides several more sketches of rural Southern life in the enlightened good ol' boy's distinctive songwriting style. Once again, the sympathetic backing musicians provide just the right amount of support, whether it's the rock solid rhythm sections of the Muscle Shoals crew and Memphis studio cats (Mike Utley on organ, Tommy McClure on bass, and Sammy Creason on drums), the occasional punchy horn sections, or the well-timed appearance of sighing string arrangements. And of course there's White's patented Whomper Stomper, ready to strike the listener like a psychedelic water moccasin when he or she least suspects it. I suppose that the only thing to criticize is the LP's brief running time, but that's not really an issue here with this reissue's abundance of bonus tracks.

"Elements and Things" comments on the awesome fury of the severe weather to which the Deep South is often exposed and conjures up images of heavy rain storms and tornadoes in my head. The humorous "Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Mossacin)" portrays the misadventures of a couple of ill-fated rednecks, with its subtitle probably being an intentional misspelling and/or a uniquely Louisianan pronunciation of "water moccasin," a poisonous aquatic snake. "Woodpecker" is intense double entendre-laden funk, pure and simple. Inspired by White's time working for Peach State's highway department, the atmospheric "Rainy Night in Georgia" is perhaps the ultimate moment in blue-eyed soul. Brook Benton, of course, had a smash hit with it the following year, but your humble scribe's introduction to this lovely ballad was Otis Rush's more than credible version that appeared on his Right Place, Wrong Time LP. The touching piece dedicated to the singer's wife, "For Le Ann," is cut from the same cloth, while the driving "Old Man Willis" provides another fine example of White's ability to choose just the right characters on which to base his musical vignettes. "Woman with Soul" and "I Want You" could both easily be other tributes to Le Ann, with the former being more on the sensitive side and latter seeming to focus more on physical desire. "I Thought I Knew You Well" returns to the sumptuous sound of "Rainy Night in Georgia" with an additional dollop of White's unique wah wah guitar toward the end. The somber closing track, "The Migrant" paints the portrait of an itinerant farm laborer and was featured as the B-side to
"Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Mossacin)."

The moody "Watching the Trains Go By" b/w (an earlier version of ) "Old Man Willis" was recorded around the same time as the sessions for Black and White. With the exception of an alternate bluesier version of "Woodpecker," the remaining bonus tracks are presumably outtakes from ...Continued. How the irresistible "Funky Fingers" - possibly a tribute to a guitarist who had played on the same club circuit as Tony Joe during his early years - remained unreleased for nearly 40 years is a mystery to me. "Soul Britches" is a nice instrumental run-through in the vein of Booker T. & the MGs, and "Dusty Marshmallow" sounds as if it had been inspired by Jimi Hendrix's reading of "All Along the Watchtower." Despite it being recorded twice, "Toil & Trouble" never made it on to any of White's Monument albums. "What Does It Take" and "This Guy's in Love with You" are capable interpretations of material by other songwriters. And while the concluding trio of "Laying Out All Night," "I Want Your Sweet Love," and "Keep a Movin' Train" all have their good points, it's likely that they would have not been considered appropriate for inclusion on this album.

1. Elements and Things
2. Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Mossacin)
3. Woodpecker
4. Rainy Night in Georgia
5. For Le Ann
6. Old Man Willis
7. Woman with Soul
8. I Want You
9. I Thought I Knew You Well
10. The Migrant
11. Watching the Trains Go By (single version)
12. Old Man Willis (single version)
13. Funky Fingers
14. Soul Britches
15. Dusty Marshmallow
16. Toil & Trouble
17. What Does It Take
18. This Guy's in Love with You
19. Woodpecker
20. Laying out All Night
21. I Want Your Sweet Love
22. Keep a Movin' Train

Tony Joe White - Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings Disc 3 - Tony Joe (Monument, 1970; Rhino Handmade, 2006)

As 1970 dawned, Tony Joe was seemingly primed to become the Elvis of the new decade. Even though there will be many people who vehemently disagree with me, I personally think that, of the two entertainers, White was the greater talent. Yes, I'll admit that Mr. Presley is historically more important because he had a 15-year head start on his career. I'll also concede that he possessed a great singing voice. However, when it comes to other areas such as instrumental ability (White plays an excellent guitar and blows a mean harmonica) and songwriting skills (let's not forget the King's own fondness for "Polk Salad Annie"), there's really no debate. True, Tony Joe White never became as big as he should have been, but he also didn't have someone like Colonel Tom Parker pulling strings for him, either. But I digress.

Tony Joe
completes the trilogy of the albums that White recorded for Monument before changing labels and signing with Warner Brothers. Whereas Black and White and ...Continued can be listened to as two peas in the same musical pod, this LP finds White altering his approach somewhat, even though it was recorded at the same studios in Nashville and Memphis and with the same session musicians previously utilized. Almost completely absent are the horns that graced many of the songs included on the first two records. Additionally, the Whomper Stomper is toned down somewhat, and several tracks find White playing an acoustic guitar in favor of his electric model. These changes contribute to Tony Joe being a more laid back but no less compelling affair than its predecessors.

I'm still not sure exactly what a "Stud Spider" is, but I still like this song. Perhaps the term is a uniquely Southern form of double entendre that has gone over the head of this particular Yankee. I get the feeling that it's in the same metaphorical bag as "Woodpecker" on ...Continued. At any rate, it's a hot and heavy number with the singer emotively grunting his way through the lyrics. Although White credits Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" as the impetus for writing material based on his own real-life experiences in rural Louisiana, he had yet to compose anything with lyrics in the true Southern Gothic narrative style. That all changed with the ominous "High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish" (based on an actual lawman who White describes as "a bad motherfucker" in the booklet notes), which features acoustic guitar, harmonica, and an eerie string section. A chillingly atmospheric masterpiece, it's not surprising that one of this song's most notable admirers is Bob Dylan. "Widow Wimberley" doesn't pack quite the same punch, but with similar arrangements and character development, it too can be cited as an example of a Southern Gothic story set to music. White takes a stab at Dr. John territory with the wah wah-drenched "Conjure Woman," while "Save Your Sugar for Me" could almost pass for mid-1970s P-Funk. In similar fashion to Black and White, the second side of Tony Joe is comprised almost entirely of covers. The interpretation of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" really cooks, and the steady rolling "What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)," makes an appearance here after first being attempted during the recording sessions for ...Continued. Yes, "My Friend" may be a little schmaltzy, but it's redeemed by the brooding and powerful "Stockholm Blues," a Tony Joe original with lyrics that may refer to some of his experiences while on tour in Europe. The album concludes with a nearly eight-minute swaggering version of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," which just manages not to be a second too long.

There are also several worthwhile cuts among the bonus tracks. A hit single in the UK, "Groupy Girl" transcends its "Jumpin' Jack Flash"-derived opening riff and effectively portrays the perils of living the rock star follower lifestyle. The driving grooves of "Prisoner" belie the fact that it's a song about being in a penitentiary, and the live-in-the-studio "Do You Want My Love" finds White in a relaxed setting, playing his acoustic guitar and being supported by unidentified friends with hand claps and on backing vocals. "Gospel Singer" is another Southern character study, while the tender "I Hate to See You Cry" seems to be a demo of a song that was not further developed. This version of "Dusty Marshmallow" comes off as a little more restrained compared to the earlier version that appears as a bonus track on ...Continued. "I Can't Stand It" sounds like Tony Joe White meets James Brown. Interesting but not essential. "Mississippi River" shows promise, and perhaps, with strings or other finishing touches, could have been included on Tony Joe or released as a single.

1. Stud Spider
2. High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish
3. Widow Wimberely
4. Conjure Woman
5. Save Your Sugar for Me
6. Hard to Handle
7. What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)
8. My Friend
9. Stockholm Blues
10. Boom Boom
11. Groupy Girl
12. Prisoner
13. Do You Want My Love
14. Gospel Singer
15. I Hate to See You Cry
16. Dusty Marshmallow
17. I Can't Stand It
18. Mississippi River

Tony Joe White - Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings Disc 4 - Barclay Studio and Isle of Wight (Rhino Handmade, 2006)

The Swamp Music box set demonstrates its utter thoroughness by not only featuring, as Tony Joe would say, "a mess" of bonus tracks along with each of his Monument LPs but also this CD of performances taped in a Paris recording studio and at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England. Other than the fact that it makes available even more great performances by an American original, it also supplies the fan with a more complete overview of White as a performer. As the booklet notes explain, he started his career as musician in the mid-1960s playing as part of small ensembles. After moving on from Louisiana to playing the clubs of Texas' Gulf coast, White often gigged solo, self-accompanied on guitar, harmonica, and a wooden Coca-Cola crate on which he stamped his foot to keep time in the manner of the bluesmen who had inspired him. On other occasions, his "band" consisted of only a drummer, a musical approach adopted long before the members of the vastly overrated White Stripes (who helped give this instrumental pairing mainstream popularity) were even born. This guitar-and-drum format was further augmented by the inclusion of the Whomper Stomper, Tony Joe's term for wah wah pedal. White has long expressed a preference for performing in this minimalist fashion, but even a sympathetic producer like Billy Swan required the musician to be backed by accompanists in a more traditional manner while recording in the studio. As a result, none of the artist's three albums on Monument present the listener with an idea of what he sounded like when performing live. This disc changes all of that.

After his unexpected success with "Soul Francisco" in France, White was flown overseas to tour, and it was during this time that arrangements were made for him to record at the Barclay label's Paris studio in March 1969. As Tony Joe put it, "It was just me and my guitar, though I brought my wooden Coke box so they could mic my foot." These performances have an introspective edge to them and, without the Whomper Stomper, are not representative of the set lists he played in the nightclubs of Louisiana and Texas. However, that's not to imply that they don't make for interesting listening since the songs included here - both originals and covers - are all ones that he had yet to record or would never record again. "Mississippi Delta," of course, is a nod to the influential Bobbie Gentry. As many times as you may have heard "Chain of Fools," White gives it a fresh interpretation in his own unique way, while the bare bones take on "Woodpecker" stands in contrast to the meatier versions he would record during the sessions for ...Continued. The rendition of Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" presented here may be even more bleak than the original. The possibly autobiographical "Blue Monday," which deals with the harsh realities of picking cotton, is unique to this recording session and did not reappear during White's time with Monument. It is followed by a brilliant medley of the standard "Tobacco Road" and "Dead End Street," made famous by Lou Rawls. "Caress Me Babe!" is a member of the same blues family as "Rock Me Baby." "Dusty Marshmallow" makes its third appearance in this box set. Clearly this song meant something to Tony Joe, but why it was never included on any of his proper releases for Monument is a mystery. The same fate that befell "Blue Monday" also happened to the musical come-on "Just Look at You," and the set concludes with a spirited reading of Joe Tex's "Skinny Legs and All."

And finally, we have White's appearance at the celebrated 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England. Since this event took place around the same time as the release of his third Monument LP, the largest number of songs come from that album. The original plan called for Tony Joe to do his thing solo, but when he was approached by Cozy Powell (who was with the Jeff Beck Group at the time) backstage before his set, they decided to give the guitar-drums setup a try even though they had never previously played together. Judging by the performances and the audience reaction, it didn't seem to matter. While there are no surprises on this set list, it is definitely interesting to hear these songs stripped down to the bare essentials in comparison to their produced studio counterparts. I would have liked to hear White really unleash the Whomper Stomper on at least one of these tracks, but playing with an unfamiliar drummer may have made this impractical. Oh well, there are plenty of other songs featured in this box set on which you can appreciate his wah wah pedal virtuosity.

Barclay Studio
1. Mississippi Delta
2. Chain of Fools
3. Woodpecker
4. The Ballad of Hollis Brown
5. Blue Monday
6. Tobacco Road/Dead End Street
7. Caress Me Babe!
8. Dusty Marshmallow
9. Just Look at You
10. Skinny Legs and All

Isle of Wight
11. Boom Boom (live)
12. Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Mossacin)
13. I Want You (live)
14. Groupy Girl (live)
15. Stud Spider (live)
16. Polk Salad Annie (live)
17. Save Your Sugar for Me (live)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tinariwen - Millennium Park, Chicago - Concert Photos - Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tinariwen are one of the few modern-day bands that I really like. These Touareg warrior-musicians are actually doing something new and exciting by playing traditionally-based music on electric - but not computerized - instruments. I have neither the time nor inclination to go into details about them. If you're not familiar with "the Deserts" read about them here.

Anyway, some new friends whom I had originally met at one of the John Berberian events at the Old Town School of Folk Music in April met up with me to see a Moroccan ensemble, L'Orchestre Chabab Al Andalous, perform at the same venue on Wednesday, June 16. During the intermission, it was announced, among other things, that Tinariwen would be performing a free concert the following evening at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago. I don't know how I had missed hearing about this show earlier, but better to find out last minute than not at all. Having never seen them in person before, I braved rush hour traffic the next day and amazingly got to my destination in plenty of time.

The show was phenomenal and did not disappoint in the least bit. Although certain melodies definitely sounded familiar, don't ask me what they specifically played because I don't speak Tamashek. But I can tell you this: Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's mesmerizing guitar is like that of no one else. Eyadou Ag Leche is a monster on bass. And the only time that I've been truly impressed by watching a male dancer was when I witnessed the lithe moves of Hassan Ag Touhami on his side of the stage. That's not to take away anything from the other band members since they're all great musicians.

Perfect weather, too. All in all, a most enjoyable evening.

Tinariwen at Millennium Park's bandshell (click to enlarge)

Obviously not Tinariwen, but somewhere I had to sneak in my only decent photo of L'Orchestre Chabab Al Andalous at the Old Town School of Folk Music the previous evening (click to enlarge)

(From left to right) Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, unknown percussionist, and Eyadou Ag Leche (click to enlarge)

(From left to right) Hassan Ag Touhami, Wonou Wallet Sidati, and Elaga Ag Hamid (click to enlarge)

Unknown percussionist (left) and Eyadou Ag Leche (click to enlarge)

The amazing Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (click to enlarge)

Wonou Wallet Sidati (left) and Elaga Ag Hamid (click to enlarge)

(From left to right) Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, unknown percussionist, and Eyadou Ag Leche (click to enlarge)

Group shot (click to enlarge)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ian and Sylvia - Lovin' Sound (MGM, 1967)

Recorded around the same time as their previously featured album, Nashville, Ian and Sylvia's first record for MGM is not as country as its predecessor, although it certainly can be described as countryish with elements of folk, folk rock, and baroque pop thrown in for good measure. The liner notes do not reveal where this LP was recorded, but the diversity of the performances suggest a location not necessarily in the South. Accompanying the Canadian duo on Lovin' Sound are guitarist David Rea (who had also worked with them on some of their Vanguard albums) in addition to respected studio musicians such as Harvey Brooks on bass and Bill LaVorgna on drums (who was also one of the percussionists on John Berberian's Middle Eastern Rock LP). With a track list that includes compelling original compositions balanced by well-chosen covers, this is quite a listenable affair, even if it did find Ian and Sylvia moving further away from the more straight ahead folk sound that had earned them a following in the first place.

"Windy Weather" almost sounds jazzy with its odd time signature and includes some interesting vocal arrangements from the artists. Tim Hardin's "Hang on to a Dream" and "Reason to Believe" are both perfectly suited for Ian and Sylvia with the call-and-response vocals and Rea's beautiful guitar work on the former and the orchestration on the latter adding just the right touches to make these interpretations distinctive. Although Bob Dylan had already recast "I Don't Believe You" as an electric folk rocker during his legendary 1966 tour ("Judas!"), it took more than 30 years for an officially released version to appear. As such, Ian and Sylvia's adaptation must have sounded fairly innovative at the time. It's too bad that they never recorded an album made up entirely of Dylan covers, but perhaps their own prowess at songwriting prevented this from ever being considered. Sylvia's "Where Did All the Love Go?" is simply gorgeous and reminiscent of earlier material from their Vanguard days, while "Mr. Spoons" is a touching ode to the couple's son, Clay Tyson, who was a toddler at the time Lovin' Sound was recorded. "National Hotel" describes the rigors of touring and staying in different accommodations every night. It's a little too goofy for my tastes, and perhaps even Ian and Sylvia knew this since the liner notes describe their resistance to having it pushed as a single. The stirring "Sunday" served as the theme song to the like-named Canadian television show on which the two frequently appeared, and the hymn-like (by virtue of Paul Harris' organ playing) "Pilgrimage to Paradise" demonstrates that Rea was a decent songwriter as well as a skilled guitarist. "Big River" finds Ian effectively revisiting Johnny Cash (whose "Come in Stranger" had been covered on Early Morning Rain), whereas the dreamy "Trilogy" replicates the mood captured on the two aforementioned Tim Hardin compositions. The album saves its finest moment for last, with the majestic title track possessing an ornate grandeur resulting from the pair's lovely vocals and the sweeping orchestral arrangements. This is the track that should have been considered for release as a single, and in a more fair world could have been a hit.

1. Windy Weather
2. Hang on to a Dream
3. I Don't Believe You
4. Where Did All the Love Go?
5. Mr. Spoons
6. National Hotel
7. Sunday
8. Pilgrimage to Paradise
9. Reason to Believe
10. Big River
11. Trilogy
12. Lovin' Sound

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ron Nagle - Bad Rice (Warner Brothers, 1970)

A pretty radical departure from his work with first-wave (and decidedly non-psychedelic) San Francisco group the Mystery Trend, keyboardist and singer Ron Nagle unleashed this superb little masterpiece in 1970, which then promptly disappeared without a trace. Perhaps the album packaging (see the last photo at bottom of this post) had something to do with it. Nevertheless, somebody believed in this project. Just take a gander at the liner notes, and you'll see that the collaborators on Bad Rice included Sal Valentino on back-up vocals, Ry Cooder on guitar, Bruce Botnick handling studio engineering duties, and Jack Nitzsche and Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue serving as producers. Truth be told, I never cared much for the Mystery Trend, so it was a genuine surprise and pleasure to find out how enjoyable this album is.


Brimming with characters like Chuckie, Matilda, Eddie, Frank, Dolores, Sister Cora, and Joe Carioca (Disney's dapper Brazilian parrot?), the story-songs of Bad Rice bear at least superficial similarity to some of Lou Reed's comparable works with subject matter that focuses on eccentric personalities. Whatever Nagle had been doing since the Mystery Trend's demise in 1967, he had evidently engaged in a lot of people watching and lyric writing during his downtime. To wit, he is the sole songwriter on all but two of the LP's 11 tracks, with guitarist and longtime associate John Blakeley being one of only two other co-writers. From everything that I've read, Nagle was not into the hippie drugs of choice, but it does not necessarily mean that Bad Rice will not appeal to those who enjoy mind-expanding music. The album is very much a product of its time, when it seemed like most of the country was high on one level or another anyway. Intentional or not, much of this music can be appreciated as psychedelic.

Introduced by some blistering slide guitar, the cryptically-titled "61 Clay" gets the LP off to a rocking start, that's for sure. Whether it was inspired by the address of an infamous locale, Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" (as some writers have suggested), or material used for his artwork (Nagle is best known for his ceramic cups), the song remains appealing in spite of its somewhat inscrutable lyrics. An anti-drug piece, "Marijuana Hell" completes a powerful one-two punch of opening cuts that both feature guest musician Ry Cooder. I still can't get the refrain of this one out of my head. Does that mean I'm addicted to "Marijuana Hell"? The string arrangements on "Frank's Store" are vintage Jack Nitzsche and reminiscent of the work he did on Neil Young's "Expecting to Fly" from Buffalo Springfield Again. "Party in L.A." is another fine rocker, while the solo piano piece "That's What Friends Are For" almost sounds like something Billy Joel (!) could have done. The lush "Dolores" has Nitzsche written all over it and is probably something that I would have not liked ten years ago for sounding overly-produced. Funny how time changes one's perspective on things. "Capricorn Queen" and "Sister Cora" provide two more sublime rocking moments, with the former kinda sounding like something off of the lone album by John Cipollina's early 1970s group, Copperhead, and both showcase the underrated guitar talents of John Blakeley. "Somethin's Gotta Give Now" has a country feel to it by virtue of the steel guitar supplied by Steve "West Virginia Creeper" Davis (from Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen), whereas "Family Style" almost sounds like an English music hall composition. The bipolar "House of Mandia" veers from hard horn-based R&B to ersatz samba and somehow works, at least in my book.

I should also mention that, later in the 1970s, Nagle began a fruitful musical partnership alongside Scott Matthews, with whom he recorded as the Durocs and wrote songs for an extremely diverse group of musicians including the Tubes, Michelle Phillips, and Barbara Streisand. And while I'm dealing with some random subjects here, if you want to read another analysis of this album and a damn fine essay to boot, check out this post on fellow music blogger Johnny Pierre's site, Rock and Roll Is a State of Mind. Thanks, Johnny, for providing me with the inspiration to seek out Bad Rice in the first place.

As usual, this won't be for everybody. But give it a chance, and you might find that this collection of exquisitely crafted tunes will grow on you.

1. 61 Clay
2. Marijuana Hell
3. Frank's Store
4. Party in L.A.
5. That's What Friends Are For
6. Dolores
7. Capricorn Queen
8. Sister Cora
9. Somethin's Gotta Give Now
10. Family Style
11. House of Mandia

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

moby grape -- moby grape '84 [aka, "heart album"] (usa : san francisco sound, 1984)

by request.

the other night, i was watching wes anderson's "rushmore" for the first time in quite a while. it's still one of my very favorites, but there were several scenes in particular of fifteen year old max fischer's ill-fated attempts to romance an older female teacher that made my stomach wince with empathic pain, more than it ever did in the past--mostly because i realized that in many of my romantic endeavours, my behavior wasn't altogether that different from his. problem is, i'm not a precocious fifteen year old prep school student in slow motion scenes soundtracked by delicate john lennon, small faces and/or cat stevens hits. i'm an adult, who should really know better than to behave like a naive lovestruck virginal teenager.

that got me thinking even moreso about the past, trying to recall what i acted like around crushes/potential paramours when i actually was fifteen (or so). i remembered a girl who lived down the street from me named kelly tegtmeyer. clearly i liked her, and she liked me--she'd wait for me to walk by her house on the way to school, or on the way home, and i'd purposefully find reasons to stall in front of her house. we had spontaneous snowball fights in the winter, and consciously or subconsciously sat near each other in our classes, always exchanging sly and/or sweet smiles. her friends would giggle to me about her as much as my friends would do the same. and then...something happened. i changed my mind, and decided i didn't want to talk to her anymore, as i began having the early-adolescent crisis of social status (or lack thereof), something i foolhardily believed she wouldn't help. so, from then on, i ignored her. and it was sad, because i knew deep inside i was wrong (but, i also was, well, damn young).

she moved away a year or so later; i never said goodbye. in college, a mutual friend had stayed in touch with her, and gave me her address at the college she was going to. i wrote her, and however silly it might have sounded, apologized for my ridiculous behavior, pontificating that it was one of those events in my life, that had i handled better, everything since would've been different (because, well, let's just say my luck with women--especially up to that point, had always been lousy. really lousy). she wrote me back, understood, and remarked how it was "almost like a fairy tale". i remember clinging to her letter as i slogged through studying for an insanely busy finals week--the photo she included with it a beacon of--at least karmically--hope and promise for change. but...it couldn't end that idyllically, could it?; i wrote her again, and, with idiot-gear kicking in, was far less whimsical, telling her in great detail how much i loved reading her letter, looking at her photo, dreaming of possibilities, whathaveyou. in short, kind of sounding like a crazy person, being far, far too personal with someone i hadn't seen or talked to--save for one short letter--in eight years. suffice it to say, i never heard from her again, left to wonder if that ending was just something that happened, or if my letter-writing bravado/creepiness was the culprit.

as mentioned, i'd like to say that subsequent events of significance with women went better than that, but most of the time, they didn't, essentially amounting to a variation of the above paragraphs' themes--missed and/or sabotaged opportunities, marked by a surplus of emotion, second-guessing, heartbreak and apologies.

i'm writing this not to be hard on myself--seriously, not that at all. these things happen; to me, to you, to anyone. however, it's something i was thinking about just as i was getting ready to compose this long-overdue piece (with, admittedly, little to say about the actual subject). why do i have this album? i never listen to it, and probably never will again*. what "causes" me to have something like this? is it something i still want? is it something i even need? i have literally hundreds--possibly thousands--of albums i could ask myself the same question about: do i need it?

but you know what? it doesn't really matter. of course, so many times we don't get what we want, and even more times than that we don't get what we need, either. sometimes...we just have what we have. and that's okay.

--the north star grassman

*[in more practical "review-speak": it's actually not so bad; if you're a moby grape completist, you'll want it--if for nothing else, the fact that skippy co-wrote one of the tracks, "better day".]


01 silver wheels
02 better day
03 hard road to follow
04 sitting and watching
05 city lights
06 queen of the crow
07 lost horizon
08 i didn't lie to you
09 suzzam
10 too old too boogie
11 think it over
12 american dream
13 reprise

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Chambers Brothers - A New Time - A New Day (Columbia, 1968)

A New Time - A New Day was the Chambers Brothers' follow-up to their massively successful The Time Has Come LP from 1967. Like a lot of albums released in the wake a major commercial breakthrough, it's not quite the artistic equal of its predecessor, but the record still contains many fine moments and further reinforces the group's position as one of America's best black rock bands of the late 1960s, not that there were a lot of African American musicians still playing that kind of music at the time anyway. As with The Time Has Come, A New Time - A New Day further develops the Brothers' sound, allowing them the big-budget production standards that their previous label, Vault, could not supply. In keeping with their first Columbia album, such a move did nothing to move them away from their downhome roots but instead enabled them to make their music, as they memorably put it in "Time Has Come Today," "psychedelicized."

Although this LP did not yield any major hit singles, this speaks more to the shortcomings of the record-buying public than to the music itself. Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of exquisite harmony vocals, one of the Chambers' trademarks. Even non-original material that has been covered ad nauseum by other musicians still sounds fresh when these guys perform it because of their immense singing talent. Their version of Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose" did creep into the Top 40 (peaking at #37) in 1968, and deservedly so because, even though most soul fanatics will probably disagree with me, it is equally good as the original. Essentially, the same compliments can be paid to their spirited take on Jesse Belvin's "Guess Who." The Chambers' own "Do Your Thing" doesn't contain much in the way of imaginative lyrics but does feature some nice instrumental grooves to get you moving. Only the Chambers Brothers could have done such a remarkably exquisite interpretation of Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." 'Nuff said. Since it was written by drummer Brian Keenan, "Love Is All I Have" could be considered blue-eyed soul, but what do you call it when four black brothers from Mississippi sing it? The highlights of "You Got the Power - To Turn Me On" are Joe and songwriter Willie's intertwining guitars and Lester's soulfully-blown harmonica, while the plaintive "I Wish It Would Rain" gives the Temptations a run for their money. "Rock Me Mama" is simply a slightly retitled version of blues standard "Rock Me Baby," which would be filler if not for the outstanding lead guitar work from (probably) Joe Chambers. Coming from Willie's songwriting pen, "No, No, No, Don't Say Good-by" sounds as if it was cut from the same cloth as "Do Your Thing." The words aren't particularly memorable, but the instrumental interplay is quite impressive. "Satisfy You," written by tunesmiths Gary St. Clair and Timothy Michael O'Brien, hearkens back to the group's original gospel sound, with the focus on those superb brotherly harmonies. Finally, the title track of this album is considered by some writers to be nothing more than an unimaginative remake of "Time Has Come Today." While it's true that it also features a prominent cowbell and clocks in at near-epic length, it can and should be appreciated on its own merits. Joe and Willie's raga-meets-blues guitars uncoil like psychedelic serpents throughout the seven-minute performance, with otherworldly voices and sounds crying out in the background. OK, maybe it is like "Time Has Come Today," but 20 trips later. In sum, one of the finest moments in mind-expanding black music.

1. I Can't Turn You Loose
2. Guess Who
3. Do Your Thing
4. Where Have All the Flowers Gone
5. Love Is All I Have
6. You Got the Power - To Turn Me On
7. I Wish It Would Rain
8. Rock Me Mama
9. No, No, No, Don't Say Good-by
10. Satisfy You
11. A New Time - A New Day

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Addiss and Crofut - Eastern Ferris Wheel (Columbia, 1968)

Even by my standards, this is one weird record. I always find it interesting to follow the career trajectories of folkies as the 1960s wore on, and Steve Addiss and Bill Crofut are among the more interesting case studies. The two multi-instrumentalists took part in a US State Department-sponsored cultural exchange program during the early part of the decade, resulting in the 400 Years of Folk Music LP on Folkways. This album showed an affinity for folk music from all over the world, but especially that of East Asia. As other writers have pointed out, Addiss and Crofut were "world musicians" before the term was even invented. Imagine some sort of cross between the works of Simon & Garfunkel with Henry Kaiser and David Lindley's international music projects, and you'll get an idea of what this pair sounds like.

Eastern Ferris Wheel can be viewed as Addiss and Crofut's magnum opus and actually fits in quite comfortably with the experimental musical climate apparent during the late 1960s. Columbia Records seems to have pulled out all the stops for this folk-world fusion album as legendary producer John Hammond was brought in to supervise the recording sessions, which also featured an impressive array of accompanying musicians. Most notable among these are keyboardist Edward Murray, whose work on organ and harpsichord gives a baroque flavor to many of the performances, and percussionist John Bergamo, who provides an equally strong Indian presence with his tabla playing. Although this kitchen-sink production will undoubtedly appeal to fans of music with a progressive bent, I can't say that the duo's somewhat twee singing style (probably rooted in their early 1960s background) will be everybody's cup of tea. But if that's not an issue for you, then get on board this audio excursion to exotic locales.


The concluding lyrics of "Om" and "Alleluja" featured in "The Jimmy Song" (partially inspired by Bach's "Sleepers Awake") are most appropriate since the territory covered on Eastern Ferris Wheel comprises all musical points between these two spiritual words. "In Just Spring" finds e.e. cummings' poem set to music with what sounds like a kalimba at the fore, while "Flowers Fall Away (Sakura Sakura)" and "Down by the Meadow (Komoriuta)" display Addiss and Crofut's prowess at performing Japanese-influenced material. With lush orchestrated backing and Bergamo's flawless rhythms, Gordon Lightfoot's "Softly" never sounded better. I'm guessing that the duo's inclusion of Charles Ives' "He Is There," which quotes numerous patriotic American songs such as "Rally Round the Flag" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic," was intended as an ironic anti-war statement. Whether that was the case or not, this schizophrenic piece reminds me of some of the goofier material on Joe Byrd's United States of America
LP, also released by Columbia in 1968. Both "Willow Rustling in the Breeze (Suliram)" and "Gentle Robyn (Gamban/Robyn)" contain prominent elements of Indonesian music, with the latter title combining the sounds of a gamelan orchestra with an old English folk song. The Jesus parable "Forty Days" comes from Dave Brubeck's oratorio Light in the Wildnerness and, in fact, features the jazz pianist and his rhythm section to excellent effect. The Chinese-derived "High in the Mountain Pass (Alishan)" has to be my favorite song on this album and gives you an idea of what Confucius might have sounded like had he been a Greenwich Village folk singer. "Azulao" is a pleasant Brazilian ballad sung in Portuguese, and "Dry Riverbeds" comes off as keyboard-heavy folk rock. The closing track, "Spring" finds Addiss and Crofut back in an East Asian setting, using an English translation of an ancient Chinese poem as its lyrics.

1. The Jimmy Song
2. In Just Spring
3. Flowers Fall Away (Sakura, Sakura)
4. Softly
5. Down by the Meadow (Komoriuta)
6. He Is There
7. Willow Rustling in the Breeze (Suliram)
8. Gentle Robyn
9. Forty Days
10. High in the Mountain Pass (Alishan)
11. Azulao
12. Dry Riverbeds
13. Spring

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Oxford American Southern Sampler 2000

In spite of the great cover art, this is unfortunately my least favorite of the Oxford American Southern Music Sampler CDs reviewed so far. As should be apparent by now, I'm generally not that interested in music from the last 30 to 40 years, and this compilation focuses too much on material from that era for my tastes. To compound matters, there seems to be an emphasis among the tracks on taking various forms of traditional Southern musical styles and attempting to modernize them with newfangled instruments and/or production techniques. However well-intentioned, the end result of such endeavors almost always sounds forced and inorganic. Adding samples and hip hop beats does not modernize or improve blues and similar types of music but rather makes such performances sound like shit. In order to update the sound of such genres, it's best to let things occur naturally over time and through the initiative of the artists instead of bringing in some hotshot producer to try to make things more appealing to today's MP3 generation. The latter is the kind of mentality that is rapidly destroying America's grassroots culture.


Things begin well enough with "Train That Carried My Girl from Town," a superb live recording by Doc and Merle Watson. In general, you can't go wrong with them. I suppose that "Sometimes We Make You Move Your Feet" is OK modern-day zydeco by Keith Frank & the Solieau Zydeco Band, but I'll take Clifton Chenier any day of the week instead. Todd Snider lays down some serviceable Southern rock of more recent vintage on "Back to the Crossroads," but Judybats' "Break My Heart" is nothing more than lackluster pop punk. Poor Asie Payton. The "Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen" deserved much better than the offensively overproduced "I Love You," a performance that typifies everything wrong with the undeservedly revered Fat Possum Records label. In their prime, the Hodges Brothers & the Hi Rhythm Section were capable of making some sublime Memphis music, but the brittle digital production on "Best in Town" does them no favors. If you're a fan of Randy Newman, "Louisiana 1927," which deals with the infamous Mississippi River flood of the same year, is a mighty fine performance, and the same can be said about Mose Allison's superb take on Willie Dixon's "Seventh Son." A once in demand saxophone player, Randall Bramblett sinks to new lows on the incredibly lame white funk-rap of "Get In Get Out." Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers never did much for me, so "Billy the Kid" doesn't do much for me, either. Fans of the singer-guitarist might like it, however. "Whatever Way the Wind Blows" shows Kelly Willis to be a pretty good female country singer of the times, and the song features some really nice guitar playing. Although the self-importance of Billy Bragg and Wilco have always been a bit off-putting to me, I must admit that "When the Roses Bloom Again" (from the
Mermaid Avenue Demos, an album that features interpretations of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs) is an excellent performance. I was surprised by how much I liked Dolly Parton's rendition of the traditional ballad "Silver Dagger." The tasteful acoustic instrumentation perfectly complements her angel-voiced singing. The best track on this collection belongs to Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish, of all people. "Leaning" was featured prominently in one of my all-time favorite films, The Night of the Hunter, in which the noted actor gives one of his best performances playing a psychotic bogus preacher. Although this old gospel tune was originally intended as a song of comfort, it gives me the chills every time that I hear it because of Mitchum's convincingly creepy performance. Surprisingly, Dean Martin does country rather compellingly on "He's Got You," a gender-inverted version of the Hank Cochran song done most notably by Patsy Cline. Simply put, Americana artist Kim Richey's "I Know" just sounds awkward, especially when she rhymes words like "cat" and "laundromat." Kevin Kinney, guitarist from Atlanta rockers Drivin' 'N' Cryin', chips in with "Dirty Angels," a decent cut from his The Flower and the Knife album, which features solid acoustic guitar work as well as harmonica from guest musician John Popper of Blues Traveler. Jesse James - not the outlaw, but a 1930s blues pianist possibly from Texas - provides one of the most interesting renditions of "the brave engineer" ballad "Casey Jones" that you're likely to hear. "Not for the Love of You Woman," a 1970s performance by country music's first blind superstar, Ronnie Milsap, is distinctive for its heavy orchestration and the singer's overblown vocals, and somehow it works as a blue eyed soul number in spite of its excesses. Tex-Mex musician Alejandro Escovedo's "Castanets" sounds pleasant enough, but the fact that it was apparently on George W. Bush's iPod playlist isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. The Derailers are an alt-county band from Austin, Texas with Oregon roots, and "Can't Stop a Train" effectively demonstrates why they're considered rightful inheritors of the honky-tonk sound. They sound fresh yet traditional, an approach that the people at Fat Possum might want consider for their own artists. "Grievin' My Heart Out for You" is a classic Jimmie Davis side from 1945, while the overly-earnest vocal performance "Down in the River to Pray" by Alison Krauss is more style than substance.


Although there are some good tracks to be found here, this one is really for Oxford American Southern Sampler completists only. Regardless of my personal opinions of the music assembled here, I greatly appreciate the contributions of two readers requesting anonymity who made this post possible.

1. Train That Carried My Girl from Town - Doc & Merle Watson
2. Sometimes We Make You Move Your Feet - Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band
3. Back to the Crossroads - Todd Snider
4. Break My Heart - Judybats
5. I Love You - Asie Payton
6. Best in Town - Hodges Brothers & the Hi Rhythm Section
7. Louisiana 1927 - Randy Newman
8. The Seventh Son - Mose Allison
9. Get In Get Out - Randall Bramblett
10. Billy the Kid - Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
11. Whatever Way the Wind Blows - Kelly Willis
12. When the Roses Bloom Again - Wilco with Billy Bragg
13. Silver Dagger - Dolly Parton
14. Leaning - Robert Mitchum & Lillian Gish
15. He's Got You - Dean Martin
16. I Know - Kim Richey
17. Dirty Angels - Kevin Kinney
18. Southern Casey Jones - Jesse James
19. Not for the Love of You Woman - Ronnie Milsap
20. Castanets - Alejandro Escovedo
21. Can't Stop a Train - The Derailers
22. Grievin' My Heart Out for You - Jimmie Davis
23. Down in the River to Pray - Alison Krauss

Monday, June 14, 2010

John Palmer - Shorelines (Celebration, 1971)

By request.

I can't give you a lot of background on this album since I only recently obtained an MP3 version of it myself. By the sound it, I'm guessing that it came from a rip of an original Canadian vinyl version, which is worth a small fortune in certain collectors' circles. Variously described as "loner folk" or "downer psych folk," this is yet another LP that is often mentioned in the same breath as Skip Spence's Oar. Does it hold up to the comparison? In sound, not so much. But in spirit, perhaps. John Palmer apparently wrote every song, handled almost all of the instruments and arrangements, and used this artistic exercise as an opportunity to express his sorrows and the bleak worldview he had at the time. I wouldn't classify this as a folk album per se since many tracks feature amplified instruments in addition to a rhythm section. Nonetheless, a brooding, introspective folk vibe permeates throughout the proceedings, and Palmer's 12-string guitar gives things a bit of troubadourish flavor. Rarely do I find LPs of this variety to be worthy of the hype that they receive, but I have to admit that this one delivers the goods in spades. You want me-against-the-world sentiments articulated in a wasted yet eloquent manner augmented by heavy psychedelic and/or stark acoustic musical landscapes? Then look no further.

I know virtually nothing about Palmer himself. I'm making an educated guess that he's Canadian, but I could be wrong. My assumption is based on information that indicates the Celebration label was from Canada. There is a very good essay on Shorelines over at this website, which indicates that the musician had connections to a local commune and was indeed grappling with some inner demons during the time when the album was recorded. It was recently reissued in rather lavish packaging that includes detailed notes about the songs and, one would assume, biographical information about Palmer. If anyone out there has this record and can be bothered to scan and e-mail that stuff to me, I would greatly appreciate it.

Since, as I had mentioned previously, my MP3 files of the songs sound like they're from an original 1971 pressing, you will have to contend with assorted snaps, crackles, and pops. It even sounds like there was some other music accidentally recorded over one of the tracks, but it may have just been added intentionally as a psychedelic effect. Despite these sonic limitations, don't let them be a distraction from this very moving listening experience. The opener, "Cloud," just kind of sneaks up on you as it begins. Backwards bits, bleak piano, doomy keyboards, and Palmer's haunting vocals give you an idea of what you're getting yourself into. As you would guess by its title, "Solitude" is just the man and his 12-string guitar and provides a moving account of a relationship that has come to an end. Shorelines' finest moment belongs to fuzz guitar-laden "Free Me," which may very well be the definitive performance for music of this genre. In a word, transcendent. "Seedling of Light" and "Colours for the Shoreline" are both lovely acoustic ballads filled with poetic imagery, while "Such a Long Time" nicely rocks out, relatively speaking. "The Wheel" and "Mapl" (possibly a reference to MAPL, an acronym for music, artist, production, and lyrics standards necessary for a song to meet the content requirements of Canadian radio) are fine instrumentals that are in the same bag as some of John Fahey's classic material. "Mandalla" has an enchanting, mystical feel to it and seems to uncoil and pulsate much in the same way the like-named concentric configurations of geometric shapes do when you stare into them for extended periods. Toward the end of this song, you can hear that strange overdub that I'm not sure was intentional or not. "Better Late Than Never" veers toward territory occupied by Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, and even, as another reviewer suggests, Bill Fay. The same can be said of "Salvation's Den," although it's a bit more produced. Yes, it is something of a downer ending, but what else were you expecting? Resignation never sounded so beautiful.

A huge "thank you" to the north star grassman for making this review possible in the first place.

1. Cloud
2. Solitude
3. Free Me
4. Seedling of Light
5. Colours for the Shoreline
6. Such a Long Time
7. The Wheel
8. Mandalla
9. Better Late Than Never
10. Mapl
11. Salvation's Den