Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Chambers Brothers - Feelin' the Blues (Vault, 1970; 2007)

By request.

Released in either 1969 or 1970 depending on the source of information, Feelin' the Blues was the last of four Chambers Brothers albums issued by Vault Records. In similar fashion to the previously-reviewed Shout!, this LP consists of performances that had been languishing in that label's archives for at least a few years before the siblings' commercial success on Columbia made such material more commercially viable. While one can view this approach as an example of a record company scraping the bottom of its barrel to maximize profits, such methods can still yield a worthwhile musical harvest when dealing with a group as talented as the Chambers Brothers. Yes, the brief running time of Feelin' the Blues prevents it from receiving a five-star rating, but it contains a sufficient number of estimable tracks that will most likely appeal to completist fans.


The booklet notes provide no information about when or where these tracks were recorded, although they most likely date from 1965 and/or early 1966. Furthermore, since these selections are part of the Chambers Brothers' pre-Columbia output, they almost definitely do not feature the redoubtable drummer Brian Keenan. Nevertheless, his probable absence should not necessarily be interpreted as a negative. Vault might have envisioned some of these tunes as possible singles at one time, especially "Girls, We Love You," which is actually the second version of the song that the Chambers Brothers did for the label. (An alternate interpretation appears on the West Coast Love-In compilation.) "Don't Lose Your Cool" has all the hallmarks of the group at its best: organic blues and gospel-derived arrangements buoyed by their distinctive harmony vocals. The remaining titles sound like in-concert performances and are at their finest when the brothers do the kind of spiritual songs on which they cut their teeth while growing up in Mississippi. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that their takes on "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Travel on My Way" are nothing short of transcendent. Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" has deep roots in sanctified music, making it perfect for inclusion in the Chambers' live repertory.
Less successful is their novelty cover of "Undecided," a popular swing-era jazz number that was originally waxed by the John Kirby Band in 1938. I can't really cite anything wrong with the rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" that appears here, but it's hard to get that excited by a song that is now quite overfamiliar to me. Finally, this album presents another version of "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" that is so similar to its counterpart on Shout! that one must question its appearance as anything other than filler.

1. Girls, We Love You
2. I Got a Woman (live)
3. House of the Rising Sun (live)
4. Don't Lose Your Cool
5. Just a Closer Walk with Thee (live)
6. Blues Get Off My Shoulder (live)
7. Travel on My Way (live)
8. Undecided (live)

Product Plugs

I consider my blog to be a creative endeavor first and foremost. But since I'm a human in need of money just like everyone else in the capitalist world, I don't mind promoting particular products that I consider to be worthy of purchase by like-minded music fans and collectors. So please bear with me as I do a little bit of a sales pitch for the following items.

Endless Trip edited by Richard Morton Jack

Computers are great, although I still prefer books and magazines when it comes time for serious reading. As far as I'm concerned, there is still something superior about an information medium that does not require a power source to make its contents accessible. For those of you who feel the same way (or find book-reading to be in an interesting novelty) and enjoy hunting and gathering LPs from the 1960s and 1970s as much as I do, then you might find the massive tome Endless Trip (companion work to the equally superb Galactic Ramble) to be of great interest. As provided by the publisher, Foxcote Books, here are the pertinent details:
  • The fullest study of the 60s and 70s US and Canadian music scene ever published, covering pop, rock, psych, prog, folk, blues and beyond!
  • 800+ packed pages, with many rare illustrations
  • Thousands of expert record reviews
  • Precise release dates / catalogue numbers for each entry
  • Excerpts from many contemporary music journals
  • Details of inserts and other relevant information
  • Three sections of color plates
  • Top 10 lists / recommendations
  • Introduction by Lenny Kaye
It's a pleasure to announce that I am one of the 14 contributors (writing under my literary name, of course) whose album reviews appear in this thoroughly comprehensive book. Moreover, it's quite a privilege to appear in a list that includes luminaries such as Simon Crisp, Tim Forster, Aaron Milenski, Nick Warburton, and the esteemed Mr. Morton Jack. Of the 50 or so album writeups that I supplied, several originally appeared on this blog, but there are also several more that I wrote especially for Endless Trip. Lavishly illustrated and elegantly assembled, it's the kind of book that won't be easy for record collectors to put down. If you liked Fuzz Acid and Flowers, you'll love Endless Trip.

While I'll concede that it has a fairly hefty price tag, this book is an excellent reference investment that will repay you time and time again by providing you with hours of reading enjoyment. For those of you in the United States, get your copy here on Amazon. People in the UK, Europe, and elsewhere can purchase it directly from the publisher's website.

Ugly Things #31

Ugly Things and 78 Quarterly are my two favorite music magazines hands down. For anyone with an interest in 1960s rock and all of its related offshoots, I shouldn't have to give you too many reasons to read the former because you probably already know how great this Mike Stax-helmed publication is. Well, just in case you need an additional rationalization to buy the latest issue, #31 includes my definitive biographical piece (also written under my nom de plume) on oud master John Berberian, not to mention all the features listed on the cover above and a whole lot more.

Get your copy directly from the Ugly Things store.

Back in Business at Amazon

Thanks to a loophole that I was able to exploit, I am once again registered as an Amazon Associate. However, my contempt for Pat Quinn, the pathetic governor of Illinois, and the annoying Jeff Bezos remains. Unlike some music blogs, I do not make money from downloads, nor will I ask my readers for financial donations. Nevertheless, I will try to persuade you to buy the albums reviewed in my posts as well as other related items by placing Amazon hyperlinks in the text. If I can help produce sales in this manner, I receive a percentage as a commission. Any such money I receive goes into my music collection, which also benefits you readers. If you're not interested in buying what I promote but plan on making a purchase on Amazon anyway, at least consider using the links in posts from April 17, 2011 or later as the means by which you access the site. As long as you enter it in this fashion, I will earn a percentage on whatever items you order. To reiterate, I'm not asking you to buy things you didn't already plan on purchasing, but any transactions that I help initiate will provide me with some monetary benefit. Alternatively, you can use this link (save it in your browser's bookmarks) or click the corporate logo above as a portal to Amazon, and then shop until you drop while helping me get a little payola in the process. It's a win-win scenario.

Thank you all for your consideration.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - East-West Live (Winner, 1996)

The greatest band to come out of Chicago during the 1960s? This one without question, or at least as it existed on their first two albums. Even though I'm a product of the Chicagoland area, most of the local outfits from that aforementioned decade have never impressed me that much. Although there are some notable exceptions, I've always felt that there was just a little too much of a teenybopper element present in the sound of a lot of Windy City rock groups of the era. That, however, was hardly the case with vocalist-harmonicist Paul Butterfield's Blues Band, who, in its earliest incarnation, was not only Chicago's finest musical aggregation from the 1960s, but also deserves greater recognition as one of the most talented and innovative groups in the United States during this period.


Of all the so-called "white blues bands," none came close to this unit's collective virtuosity and ability to transcend the genre. In reality, they were not a white group but rather a racially-mixed one as evinced by the presence of drummers Sam Lay (on their first LP, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and Billy Davenport (on their sophomore effort, East-West) in addition to bassist Jerome Arnold, with all three of them being veteran black musicians from Chicago's blues club scene. That the group was based in the South Side of the city also gave them an edge over the blues-rock competition since they were much closer to the music that inspired them in the first place. While the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's first album does a nice job interpreting the form, East-West distinguishes itself as their true masterpiece. The blues covers remain superb, but it's the exploration of other styles including soul-funk (Lee Dorsey's "Get Out of My Life Woman") and jazz (Nat Adderley's "Work Song") that make it indisputably exceptional. Even so, the LP is really at its finest on the 13-minute title track that virtually invented raga rock. I cannot help but display some regional pride here. Throughout 1966 and early 1967, a bunch of guys in Hyde Park were at the forefront of the American countercultural music curve by playing the kind of extended improvisatory material that would become more closely associated with groups from San Francisco in the immediately following years. Indeed, the Butterfield Blues Band was an important and often underacknowledged influence on Haight-Ashbury musicians who were just learning how to jam. Well, don't just take my word for it. As noted music writers Gene Sculatti and Davin Seay discuss in their absorbing book San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip 1965-1968,
The most distinguished early visitors were Paul Butterfield's Blues Band, whose first appearance, a full-house Family Dog stomp (with Quicksilver Messenger Service) at the Fillmore the weekend of March 25 (1966), was a pivotal gig. Simply put, Mike Bloomfield's incendiary guitar and the six-man band's swinging ensemble approach were inspirational to San Francisco's new musicians. The tight, compact songs from the group's year-old first album were now stretched open, retaining their shape but brimming with solos by Bloomfield, second guitarist Elvin Bishop and organist Mark Naftalin. There were real jazz licks, Oriental riffs and wailing Mideastern desert winds - all compatibly placed in the instrumental travelogue "East West," as yet unrecorded. After the second set, local boys like John Cipollina and Jerry Garcia went home with their ears buzzing and their fingers twitching, eager to put as much into - and get such sustained highs out of - their own music.


As indicated by the title, East-West Live collects different in-concert versions of this trailblazing instrumental epic that add considerably to its legacy. Dave Marsh's booklet notes provide some fascinating details on the origins of this piece as well as its technical aspects:
Mark Naftalin says that Michael Bloomfield brought "East-West" to the Butterfield Band in the days following an all-night acid trip (in Cambridge in late 1965). "Mike sequestered himself in the wee hours of the night," Naftalin recalls, "and when he emerged at dawn he said he'd had a revelation into the workings of Indian music." At first simply called "the raga," "East-West" was an exploration of musics that moved modally, rather than through chord changes. As Naftalin explains, "This song was based, like Indian music, on a drone. In Western music terms, it 'stayed on the one.' The song was tethered to a four-beat bass pattern and structured as a series of sections, each with a different mood, mode and color, always underscored by the drummer, who contributed not only the rhythmic feel but much in the way of tonal shading, using mallets as well as sticks on the various drums and the different regions of the cymbals. In addition to playing beautiful solos, Paul played important, unifying things in the background - chords, melodies, counterpoints, counter-rhythms. This was a group improvisation. In its fullest form it lasted more than an hour."
Although this CD does not feature that fabled 60-plus-minute rendition mentioned above, the three versions it does include are still nothing short of breathtaking. The sound quality is quite good, even if the performances were captured by the relatively primitive portable tape recording technology of the day. Each interpretation of "East-West" has its own virtues and ably demonstrates the ongoing evolution of the piece. But for my money, "#3," which clocks in at 28 minutes and even quotes the Christmas carol "Joy to the World," wields the greatest transportative powers.

1. East-West, Live Version #1 (Hollywood, Winter 1966)
2. East-West, Live Version #2 (Chicago, Spring 1966)
3. East-West, Live Version #3 (Huntington Beach, Winter 1967)


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

George Mgrdichian - The Now Sounds of the Middle East (Monitor, 1969)

Often mentioned in the same breath as fellow Armenian-American oud master (Udi) John Berberian, George Mgrdichian (1935-2006) was slightly older than his counterpart and, according to cognoscenti, his musical equal at the very least. Debates concerning the perceived instrumental superiority of one over the other quickly prove to be pointless exercises much in the same way that arguments about particular jazz virtuosi can be considered fruitless exercises. Who was the better saxophonist - John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins? Well, it all depends on one's musical tastes. The same thing can be said about these two oudists extraordinaires.


Like Berberian, Mgrdichian (mug-er-DICH-ee-an) owes much of his esteemed reputation to the innovations he brought to oud playing. As his New York Times obituary notes, he helped bring greater exposure to the instrument by performing alongside jazz, classical, and other Middle Eastern musicians as well as adopting cutting-edge techniques such as playing single notes, utilizing chords, and fingering his instrument's fretboard with four digits as opposed to the typical two-digit method. Although Mgrdichian originally hailed from Philadelphia (where he recorded his first long player, The Oud), he relocated to New York City during the early 1960s to study at the Julliard School of Music, at which he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. Throughout that decade and up until his death, he performed at concerts all around the world and participated in numerous recording sessions both as a leader and an accompanist. Efforts such as On the Oud, One Man's Passion, Instrumental Armenian Folk Songs and Dances, and Romanzas Sefarditas will doubtlessly appeal to those with a fondness for Middle Eastern recordings that incorporate both traditional and progressive musical elements.

The Now Sounds of the Middle East dates from 1969 and, as its title implies, seeks to present the listener with what was then considered a more modern approach to playing music of this variety. Assisted by Monitor label-mates and Feenjon Group members Menachem Dworman on guitar, Lou Mavrogian on bass, and Moulay Ali Hafid on dumbeg, Mgrdichian creates an eclectic album that includes impeccable renditions of age-old Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Israeli standards in addition to interpretations of "now" pop and jazz material. The end results are quite impressive as long as one is not expecting the heavy sounds featured on Berberian's Middle Eastern Rock or the Devil's Anvil Hard Rock from the Middle East, to name two examples. Among the album's 12 instrumentals, the Turkish ("Nehavend Longa," "Sultan Yoga," "Laz Bar," "Chat Araban," "Caderemen Ustune [Rampi]," and "Shenez Longa"), Greek ("Marinella"), and Armenian (the melancholy "Sev Khavar") numbers rank as my personal favorites. Mgrdichian was also well-known for his predilection for traditional Jewish music, an interest most effectively displayed on "Aley Giva" and the medley of "Erev Shel Shoshanim" and "Cholot Mid Bar." The most experimental moments on The Now Sounds of the Middle East belong to a pleasant if not earth-shattering cover of the Beatles' "Yesterday" and the more interesting adaptation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take 5," which would have benefited from just a bit more exploration on the part of the participating musicians.


1. Nehavend Longa
2. Sultan Yoga
3. Yesterday
4. Laz Bar
5. Chat Araban
6. Aley Giva
7. Caderemen Ustune (Rampi)
8. Israeli Medley: A). Erev Shel Shoshanim B). Cholot Mid Bar
9. Marinella
10. Take 5
11. Shenez Longa
12. Sev Khavar

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Backwoods Blues (1926-1935) (Document, 1991)

Without question, this CD is one of the best items from Document Records' 5000-series of releases from the 1990s. I remember coveting it for quite some time before ultimately acquiring it during my grad student days about 15 years ago. For the most part, I was satisfied with the quality of the performances. This collection of prewar blues recordings has been around in the blogosphere previously, but I think someone asked me about it last year, and I'm always happy to take requests. The "Complete Recorded Works" approach particular to Document precludes it from assembling regional compilations in the same fashion that Yazoo did with several of their classic LPs from the 1960s and 1970s. Even though the former's modus operandi is often not conducive to consistent listenability, it occasionally produces brilliant results, especially when it presents the total output of prewar blues musicians who were talented but not particularly prolific and groups these sides on the same CD. Of all the albums in Document's catalogue, few, if any, succeed on this level better than Backwoods Blues.

Two extremely significant rural blues guitarists are profiled here, and their tracks alone make this disc essential to fans of this style of music. The first, James "Bo Weavil" Jackson (pictured in the hazy photo on the booklet cover), bears distinction for being one of the first of his kind to make records in 1926. Labels were frantically searching for another Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose debut 78, "Long Lonesome Blues," from earlier that year became an unexpected smash hit. Brought to the attention of Jefferson's label Paramount by Birmingham piano store owner and talent scout Harry Charles, Jackson has previously been misidentified as an East Coast bluesman but was more likely one who was based in Alabama and made intermittent forays into Mississippi. While Paul Oliver's booklet notes state that the "Sam Butler" pseudonym Jackson used on his recordings for Vocalion may have incorporated his mother's maiden name, Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow's research suggest that Charles came up with this alternate identity so he could present his street singer discovery to another label and double his profits from referral fees. It is regrettable that so little is known about Jackson as his life story would undoubtedly be as fascinating as his delightfully idiosyncratic music. No other prewar blues guitarist played as frantically as he does on Paramount sides such as the "Crow Jane" variant "Pistol Blues," the irresistibly titled "Some Scream High Yellow," and the Son House-like slide masterpiece "You Can't Keep No Brown" (the later test pressing for Vocalion is a completely different, less-interesting song). "Why Do You Moan?" almost sounds like a vaudeville piece and displays Jackson's versatility, as do his spirited renditions of gospel tunes "When the Saints Come Marching Home" (aka "When the Saints Go Marching In"), "I'm on My Way to the Kingdom Land," "Christians Fight On, Your Time Ain't Long," and "Heaven Is My View." Upon further listening, "Devil and My Brown Blues" reveals itself to be an interpretation of "The Ballad of the Boll Weevil," the song from which Jackson appropriated his nickname. Strangely enough, this test pressing was recorded for Vocalion, the label that billed him as "Sam Butler," but apparently was never attempted for Paramount. "Poor Boy" is actually another performance of "You Can't Keep No Brown" (Paramount version) that is marred by its sluggish execution, while the Charles-penned "Jefferson County Blues" became something of an Alabama blues standard by virtue of additional versions by Priscilla Stewart and William Harris (who waxed it as "Keep Your Man out of Birmingham").

King Solomon Hill is the second of the two exceptional guitarists whose works are collected on Backwoods Blues. It would be impossible to mistake him for any other blues musician, as one listen to his unique vocals and lap-style bottleneck approach will readily demonstrate. Quite simply, no one else before or since has sounded anything like Hill, suggesting that his 1932 sides for Paramount recorded just before the label's collapse are artistry of the highest caliber. He recasts Lonnie Johnson's "She's Making Whoopee in Hell Tonight" as "Whoopee Blues" (the first take not featuring his usual falsetto) and Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe's "What Fault You Find of Me?" as "Tell Me Baby," both being outstanding examples of his singular genius for interpretation. His own extradordinary compositions, "Down on My Bended Knee" and the incomparable "Gone Dead Train" have no parallels in the history of recorded blues. (Two additional King Solomon Hill sides would surface in 2002, one of which is available here.) Hill's true identity became the focus of a particularly vicious disagreement between blues scholars Gayle Dean Wardlow and David Evans. The former contends that a musician named Joe Holmes adopted King Solomon Hill (a small community that was in the vicinity of Minden, Louisiana) as his nom de disc, a view that has largely been accepted as fact in today's blues community. Meanwhile, Evans has not been able to present any evidence that convincingly refutes Wardlow's assertion.

Unfortunately, nothing is known about the other two artists whose material is included on Backwoods Blues. Bobby Grant was another rural bluesman who was recorded early (1927) and whose driving slide guitar showpieces "Nappy Head Blues" and "Lonesome Atlanta Blues" denote a possible Mississippi background, the title of the latter notwithstanding. Regarding the haunting "Hard Time Blues" and "California Desert Blues," I can't help but wonder if Lane Harden was actually a hillbilly performer whose lone 78 from 1935 was marketed as a race record. While his compelling guitar playing comes off as legitimately bluesy, his vocals could very well be that of white singer. Then again, Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes don't sound very "black" on some of their vintage sides, thus proving that one can never be too sure about racial identity on certain obscure recordings from the prewar era.

1. Pistol Blues - Bo Weavil Jackson
2. Some Scream High Yellow
- Bo Weavil Jackson
3. You Can't Keep No Brown
- Bo Weavil Jackson
4. When the Saints Come Marching Home
- Bo Weavil Jackson
5. I'm on My Way to the Kingdom Land
- Bo Weavil Jackson
6. Why Do You Moan?
- Bo Weavil Jackson
7. Devil and My Brown Blues (test) - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
8. Poor Boy Blues
- Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
9. Jefferson County Blues
- Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
10. Jefferson County Blues (alt. take)
- Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
11. You Can't Keep No Brown (test)
- Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
12. Christians Fight On, Your Time Ain't Long
- Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
13. Heaven Is My View
- Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
14. Nappy Head Blues - Bobby Grant
15. Lonesome Atlanta Blues - Bobby Grant
16. Whoopee Blues (first take) - King Solomon Hill
17. Whoopee Blues (second take) - King Solomon Hill
18. Down on My Bended Knee (first take) - King Solomon Hill
19. Down on My Bended Knee (second take) - King Solomon Hill
20. The Gone Dead Train - King Solomon Hill
21. Tell Me Baby - King Solomon Hill
22. Hard Time Blues - Lane Hardin
23. California Desert Blues - Lane Hardin

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Joe South - A Look Inside (Capitol, 1972)

While preparing for today's review, I was really struck by the similarities as well as the dissimilarities between this performer and another contemporary artist from the same region. It's always been my belief that Joe South and Tony Joe White should be mentioned in the same breath during discussions about important white Southern musicians who were popular circa 1965-1975. In addition to their shared geographic origins, they are also superb guitarists, excellent songwriters, and difficult to pigeonhole on account of the numerous influences they incorporate into their own unique styles. It is also possible, however, to view them as opposite sides of the same coin. Whereas White is a country boy from the Louisiana bayou with an outsider background, the citified South hails from Atlanta and started his career in the music industry while he was still a teenager. White remains musically active, while South has kept a much lower profile since personal tragedy led to his gradual withdrawal from the public eye beginning in the early 1970s. His continued relative inactivity and retirement remains our loss.


A Look Inside marked the end of South's tenure with Capitol Records and, without any hit singles, was his least successful effort, commercially-speaking. Prior to the recording sessions for this album, South's brother Tommy (who played drums in both his studio and touring bands) had committed suicide after losing a protracted battle with substance abuse. Although this sad event initiated a downward spiral from which Joe has never fully recovered, somehow he was able to persevere in spite of his loss, escalating drug use, and a fading presence on the music charts. Given those factors, this LP very well could have been a disaster. Nevertheless, it's still a pretty good one, and South should be commended for turning a lot of lemons into a product that is mostly lemonade.

Not surprisingly given the aforementioned circumstances, an air of sadness permeates A Look Inside. The songs feature more of an emphasis on confessional lyrics instead of the instrumental flash heard on the
Danelectro Sitar Guitar-heavy tracks (e.g. "Games People Play") of South's earlier records. Ironic as it may be, several performances acknowledge the dangers of drug abuse: the gospel-like "Coming Down All Alone" ("Soon you'll believe there's no kind of bummer that a dime bag couldn't cure"), "Imitation of Living" ("Too many memories that alcohol won't drown...too many pills I just can't make it without"), and "I'm a Star" ("And to run this frantic pace requires enough amphetamine to blow a fuse"). That last song is the one that really drove home the parallels between Joe South and Tony Joe White to my reckoning. Just as the latter's "A Night in the Life of a Swamp Fox" from his first Warner Brothers album insightfully comments on life as a professional musician while quoting his best-known hit ("Polk Salad Annie"), "I'm a Star" offers a variation of the same theme while using the previously-cited "Games People Play" in a similar fashion. Although it sounds more instrumentally upbeat upon first inspection, "One-Man Band" further assesses the cons of being a successful recording artist, chief among them fan-imposed demands. "It Hurts Me Too" is not a cover of the blues classic but expresses a similar sentiment, while "Real Thing" apparently reminds listeners to appreciate what they already have. "Misunderstanding" stresses the importance of clearly communicating in an effort to avoid conflicts - at least that's my interpretation. The somewhat smug "Misfit" finds South taking pride in exceeding the expectations of others and doing things his way, never mind the fact that his formula for commercial success was beginning to lose its potency at this point in his career. When he sings "Save Your Best," he's talking about conserving time and effort only for the people who truly love you. "All Nite Lover, All Day Friend" encourages the addressee to let South put this philosophy into action for her.

1. Coming Down All Alone
2. Imitation of Living
3. It Hurts Me Too
4. Real Thng
5. One Man Band
6. Misunderstanding
7. Misfit
8. Save Your Best
9. I'm a Star
10. All Night Lover

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fall of Man: Calypsos on the Human Condition 1935-1941 (Rounder Select, 1999)

I occasionally hear the complaint that prewar calypsos all sound the same. While I'll concede that some melodies were recycled with a certain degree of frequency, every performance that I've ever heard has always been lyrically unique. In contrast to their blues and jazz counterparts in the United States, only a relatively small number of calypsonians from Trinidad had 78s released during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. When this did occur, there were significantly fewer labels that sold this kind of music. Recording sessions almost always took place in New York City, and it is likely that the producers often used the same backing instrumentalists while in the studio. These factors may partially explain the musical sameness that pops up on particular calypso performances.


With this in mind, several of the tracks on Fall of Man: Calypsos on the Human Condition 1935-1941 may sound similar to those already compiled on previously-reviewed collections of Trinidadian music, including Calypso Breakaway 1927-1941, Roosevelt in Trinidad: Calypsos of Events, Places, and Personalities 1933-1939, Calypsos from Trinidad: Politics, Intrigue & Violence in the 1930s, Calypso Pioneers 1912-1937, and Calypso Calaloo.
As its title suggests, however, this CD features performances that, according to John H. Cowley's booklet notes, focus on "philosophical observations, the role of superstition, life, death, money, status and the eternal theme of male-female relations." Consequently, many of these tracks deal with the same thematic territory that is often covered in blues recordings from the same era, even if the arrangements and the calypso singers' generally more sophisticated vocabulary render them musically and lyrically distinct.


The most common subject addressed in these songs is intergender affairs, with some lyrics being sympathetic to women and others downright hostile. In a nod to Trinidad's ethnic Indian population, "Sadhu Man" by the Tiger (Neville Marcano) describes using Hindu ascetism as a remedy to black magic practiced by unfaithful women. Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore) and Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo) blame rhumba records sold by retailer-promoter Eduardo Sa Gomes for causing their women to lose interest in them as detailed in "Young Girl's Touch." Despite their seemingly complimentary titles, several performances warn male listeners about the dangers of increased female power and autonomy, among them Atilla's "Women Will Rule the World" and "Woman Is Not the Weaker Sex" in addition to "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" by King Radio
(Norman Span). The names of other songs are more blatant statements of misogyny as demonstrated by Atilla's "Vagaries of Women" and "Not Me with Matrimony." King Radio and the Lion (Rafael de Leon) respectively utilize Biblical allegories to provide commentary on the battle of the sexes in "Ribs" and "Fall of Man," while Beginner and Atilla's "Women Are Good and Women Bad" and the Lion and Atilla's "I Will String Along with You" offer a more balanced view of things. Calypso lyrics often concern themselves with polyamory and infidelity. In the case of "Radio Fifty Wives," King Radio boasts of his multiple lovers, whereas the Growler (Errol Duke) condemns his lady for her involvement with other men in "Don't Hide Him Behind the Door." Atilla continues with his gripes about the opposite sex on "Martiniquen," in which he details the treacherous ways of a wanton girl from Martinique but also acknowledges her superb romantic skills. In "Calypso Behind the Wall," the Growler cautions men about the dangers of relationships with women who would give birth to children out of wedlock, or as he simply puts it, "Try an' keep away from bastardy." "Only Foreigners" gives the singer an opportunity to fantasize about women (from Trinidad and elsewhere) of non-African heritage who were off-limits to the lowborn calypsonians. Of course, even the most hardened womanizers and battle-scarred veterans of the dating game have a soft spot for Mom in their hearts, a sentiment touchingly reflected in "Warning the Children Towards Mother" by King Radio and "Mother's Love" by the Mighty Destroyer (Clifford Morris).


The subject matter of the remaining tracks on Fall of Man centers on other elements of human existence expressed in a uniquely Trinidadian fashion. The imitative primate portrayed in "Monkey" - a musical observation on peoples' behavior by King Radio, the Lion, and the Tiger - allows the singers to comment on "their own activities," while "rivalry between the monkey and singers provides comic tension," according to Cowley. Wealth, or lack thereof, was another subject that lent itself well to calypsos. The Executor (Philip Garcia) stresses the importance of education in escaping poverty in "
Hold Up Black Bird Hold Up," while Atilla exhorts his listeners to beware duplicitous associates attracted only to money in "Friends." In "Exploiting," the Caresser (Rufus Callender) holds the objects that one can acquire with wealth in high regard but also condemns the means by which various opportunists achieved their affluence. Atilla's "If I Won a Sweepstake," a musical daydream about winning the lottery to which we all can probably relate, closes out the list of money-related songs. Finally, we have the Lion's insightful meditations on gossip, as articulated in "Malicious Neighbours," in addition to the fate that awaits us all, better known as "Death."

1. Sadu Man - The Tiger
2. Young Girl's Touch - Lord Beginner with Atilla the Hun
3. Women Will Rule the World - Atilla the Hun
4. Vagaries of Women - Atilla the Hun
5. Ribs - King Radio
6. Women Are Good and Women Are Bad - Lord Beginner with Atilla the Hun
7. Fall of Man - The Lion
8. Monkey - King Radio, The Lion, The Tiger
9. Radio Fifty Wives - King Radio
10. Warning the Children Towards Mother - King Radio
11. Hold Up Black Bird Hold Up - The Executor
12. Friends - The Atilla
13. Martiniquen - The Atilla
14. I Will String Along with You - The Lion and Atilla
15. Exploiting - The Caresser
16. Calypso Behind the Wall - The Growler
17. Not Me with Matrimony - Atilla the Hun
18. Only Foreigners - The Growler
19. Malicious Neighbours - The Lion
20. Woman Is Not the Weaker Sex - Atilla the Hun
21. Death - The Lion
22. Don't Hide Him Behind the Door - The Growler
23. If I Won a Sweepstake - Atilla the Hun
24. Mother's Love - Mighty Destroyer
25. Man Smart, Woman Smarter - King Radio

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Robert Pete Williams - Louisiana Blues (Takoma, 1966; 1980)

Most of you are probably familiar with the legendary Takoma Records label, established by master guitarist John Fahey in 1959. Although this venture eventually branched out into other musical styles during the 1960s and 1970s, it never strayed far from its original focus on acoustic instrumentalists, blues singers, experimental artists, and various types of roots-inspired performers. Since that time, the company's catalogue has been acquired by three larger corporate entities: Chrysalis (1979), Fantasy (1995), and Concord (2004). The first parent company - with a roster that included extremely dissimilar acts typified by Pat Benatar, Jethro Tull, and Ultravox - would seem to have been the least compatible, a theory supported by the brief three-year period that the subsidiary's master tapes were under their control. During that time, however, Chrysalis engaged in an impressive vinyl reissue campaign of Takoma's outstanding series of blues albums. With the exception of not using the original cover artwork, the larger label did a nice job with these rereleases. Not surprisingly, the LPs did not sell and were quickly consigned to cutout bins, making them easy to find in used record stores throughout the 1980s and 1990s.


When this album was recorded and originally released in 1966, Robert Pete Williams already had a small but supportive group of fans who championed him as one of the greatest discoveries of the postwar blues revival. Ethnomusicologists Harry Oster and Richard Allen found him at the infamous Angola State Penitentiary
in Louisiana serving a life sentence (for shooting another man) while the pair toured the South making field recordings. With their assistance, Williams was paroled in 1958, although he essentially lived as an indentured servant on a farm until the mid 1960s, which greatly curtailed his musical activities. His appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival marked his first performance outside of his home state, and he was able to start playing the college and coffeehouse circuit with rediscovered prewar bluesmen and other recently-unearthed rural black musicians (e.g. Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, etc.) the following year. After making recordings for labels such as Arhoolie, Sonet, and (of course) Takoma and taking part in a 1966 European tour, the singer-guitarist settled down to enjoy a normal life of freedom for the remainder of the decade. The 1970s found him returning to concert and festival appearances in a professional capacity, which gradually became less frequent until his death in 1980.


Titled simply Louisiana Blues, this lone effort for Takoma may very well be the definitive LP by Robert Pete Williams, one of the most unorthodox blues musicians who ever lived. His unique artistic approach rendered him distinct from other performers with whom he often shared bills. While Williams's playing style was a refreshing change of pace from the hackneyed variety of blues peddled by many of his contemporaries, it also did much to limit his appeal among those accustomed to less challenging music. I'll admit that I didn't like this album very much when I first got it 15 or so years ago because something about it just didn't sound "right." As my musical horizons broadened over time, however, the songs began to grow on me, and I learned to appreciate Williams's idiosyncratic talent. To my non-musician's ears, it sounds like he often employs a distinct call-and-response method of performing whereby his improvisatory guitar lines follow the lead established by his equally extemporaneous and singular lyrics. The liner notes by Canned Heat guitarist Al "Blind Owl" Wilson more or less support my contention, and I suggest that you read them for a much more detailed analysis of this blues musician's technique. Due to its sui generis nature, the songs on this LP defy easy description. For lack of a better way to put it, "Freight-Train Blues," "It's Hard to Tell," the epic "This Is a Mean Old World," and "It's a Long Old Road" are quintessential Robert Pete Williams since none of these tracks sound like any other blues musician. "Somebody Help Poor Me" seems to have been inspired by Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues" but is interpreted in a completely original fashion. On the other hand, "I'm Going Down Slow" bears no similarities to the like-titled Jimmy Oden composition as far as I can tell. "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" demonstrates Williams's ability to handle spiritual pieces just as well as he does secular material, with "Ugly" (aka "I've Grown So Ugly") being his best-known work by virtue of Captain Beefheart's cover version on Safe As Milk. "So Long Boogie" is the most straightforward blues item on this album, not that there is anything wrong with that. The significance of the title of "High As I Want to Be" remains obscure since it is practically an instrumental performance. But as such, it displays this bluesman's ingenious guitar picking style to excellent effect.


1. Somebody Help Poor Me
2. Freight-Train Blues
3. It's Hard to Tell
4. I'm Going Down Slow
5. Motherless Children Have a Hard Time
6. Ugly
7. So Long Boogie
8. This Is a Mean Old World to Me
9. High As I Want to Be
10. It's a Long Old Road

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Romper Stomper - Original Soundtrack (Picture This, 1992)

I might lose some readers on account of this post since certain people will probably be offended by specific tracks on this CD. As a record collector, I occasionally find myself confronted by the dilemma of liking particular songs or albums even if I disagree with the musicians' beliefs and the philosophies expressed in their lyrics. The primary criterion for determining whether or not I add something to my musical archives is simple: Does the music move me? If so, it either ends up filed away on my shelves or saved somewhere on my external hard drive. Thus, I can justify owning gospel LPs even though I'm not a Christian, Black Power music even though I'm a token white devil, recordings by Charles Manson even though I think he should be kept in permanent solitary confinement if not executed, and albums by gay artists even though I'm straight.


Within the period spanning 1992-2001, three notable films that dealt with the skinhead movement were released: Romper Stomper, American History X, and The Believer. The latter two are better known because they received wider distribution as a result of being American studio productions and featured actors Edward Norton and Ryan Gosling respectively in the lead roles. From a script and likeability standpoint, these are arguably superior movies since they include relatively straightforward plots and clear resolutions to their characters' conflicts. In terms of emotional impact and the ability to shock, however, the Australian-made Romper Stomper (starring a young Russell Crowe) remains the most potent of these three motion pictures. In my opinion, it's not a masterpiece, but its extremely nihilistic tone offers the most realistic portrayal of the skinhead lifestyle. The acting deserves praise since Crowe as well as co-stars Daniel Pollock and Jacqueline McKenzie all turn in fine performances. Nevertheless, most viewers will find their roles to be completely unworthy of sympathy, even if Pollock's character begins to rethink his racist beliefs toward the end of the flick. As one of the bleakest films ever made, Romper Stomper is not a pleasant viewing experience, although it will make you think and examine your own views on race. I still like American History X and The Believer better as entertainment vehicles, but it's the nastiness of this Australian production that has had the most profound effect on me and has stayed in my thoughts the longest.


My belief is that the soundtrack to Romper Stomper is superior to the movie itself. But in similar fashion to the film, these performances are more powerful than they are likeable. I'm usually not a big fan of electronic music, but John Clifford White's synthesized score is downright creepy and unsettling. "Prologue/Romper Stomper Theme," "
Skinheads Go Shopping/Gabe Sees Swastika," "Let's Break Some Fingers/Brawl Crawl," "Tonguey for the Skins/Nightmare for the Hippies," "At the Mansion," "We Came to Wreck Everything," "Wild Animals 1," "Bubs Dead/Gabe Finds Davey," "Gabe and Davey," "Night Drive," "On the Beach," "Wild Animals 2," and "The Dead Nazi March" are more eerily atmospheric than even the best horror film soundtracks. "Mein Kampf" finds Crowe delivering a chilling recitation of Hitler's hate-filled views as expressed in the infamous book and is guaranteed to offend all but the most callous bigots. The remaining selections - the anthemic "Pulling on the Boots," "Fuehrer Fuehrer," "The Smack Song," and "Fourth Reich Fighting Men" - are examples of racist Oi! music that were composed specifically for this movie, though I'm not sure about the specific identity of the musicians. If they are not members of an actual white supremacist band, then they do a convincing job of musical acting whoever they might be. In regard to musicianship, these are first-rate early 1990s punk performances with decidedly ugly lyrics. As director Geoffrey Wright explains,
Regarding this soundtrack. Part of this extraordinary and award winning film score includes examples of that obscure musical genre known as 'Oi'. They have been placed here, with their racist lyrics intact, in the context of the other compositions constituting Romper Stomper's aural heart of darkness. It would be desirable to ask the listener to accept the Oi songs in the same way as they'd accept a grisly item in a museum. Unfortunately however, the hatred and despair that generated the original modes is not a relic of history but a part of the here and now.


1. Prologue
2. Romper Stomper Theme
3. Pulling on the Boots
4. Skinheads Go Shopping/Gabe Sees Swastika
5. Mein Kampf
6. Fuehrer Fuehrer
7. Let's Break Some Fingers/Brawl Crawl
8. The Smack Song
9. Tonguey for the Skins/Nightmare for the Hippies
10. At the Mansion
11. We Came to Wreck Everything
12. Wild Animals 1
13. Bubs Dead/Gabe Finds Davey
14. Gabe and Davey
15. Fourth Reich Fighting Men
16. Night Drive
17. On the Beach
18. Wild Animals 2
19. Fourth Reich Fighting Men Reprise
20. The Dead Nazi March

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Indexi - Indexi (Jugoton, 1974)

The subject of today's review is an item that I picked up while on vacation in Croatia during the summer of 2002. An old friend of mine is 100% Hrvatski (his father is from Sibenik, Dalmatia, his mother from Pozega, Slavonia), and his family takes regular trips to their homeland every summer. I had been bugging him for a long time to let me tag along on one of these trips and finally got my wish that year. This isn't a travel blog, so I won't bore you with irrelevant details; suffice it to say that this three-week excursion to one of Europe's best-kept secrets (at least to Americans) was an extremely memorable and fun-filled vacation. Although Croatia - and especially its Adriatic coast - has long been a popular holiday destination for Europeans, American tourists were still something of a novelty when I went there nine years ago, and it was nice to be in a country that was civilized yet not overly commercialized. To wit, the dearth of billboards and other obnoxious forms of advertising was especially refreshing. Unfortunately, I've heard that things have changed quite a bit since then. But I digress. Among the other activities I did while exploring the capital city of Zagreb was to visit its used record stores. I don't recall the names of any of these establishments, but at one where the proprietor was a little less curmudgeonly (an apparently universal characteristic of collectible music sellers throughout the world) and a little more fluent in English than others, I found an intriguing selection of vinyl artifacts from the surprisingly vibrant Yugoslavian music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. This fantastic LP remains the crown jewel of my discoveries.


The numerous wars that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia during the 1990s seem like they occurred only yesterday. I'm not here to take sides or to assign blame to one particular side or another. Yugoslavia might not have been a socialist paradise, even though I'm sure it would have been a better place to live in compared to just about any Eastern Bloc country during the Cold War. The one thing that seems to be true - and I've heard the same contention from older Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins - was that this era fostered an unprecedented commingling of the country's diverse cultures never to be repeated. Despite the fact that it is now mostly remembered for numerous scenes of carnage during the aforementioned military conflicts, the Bosnian capital Sarajevo was a dynamic cosmopolitan melting pot in the 1960s that provided a supportive milieu for the numerous rocks bands that called the city home.


Foremost among such groups, Indexi (est. 1962) took their name from the ubiquitous booklets used by university students for attendance and exam-taking purposes. The individual names of main members Davorin Popovic (vocals), Slobodan Kovacevic (guitar), and Fadil Redzic (bass) illustrate the multi-ethnic nature of both the band and Sarajevo itself. Their story is similar to countless other contemporary American and European aggregations in that they started out primarily doing cover versions of other musicians' works and then progressed to writing and performing their own more ambitious material by the end of the 1960s. And tell me if this doesn't sound like a story similar to numerous musical acts in the capitalist world: Indexi were a multifaceted unit that could pump out radio-friendly numbers for the pop charts but were also capable of more experimental stretched-out compositions that have earned them accolades from aficionados of European psych and progressive rock. The group recorded extensively and remained active with varying lineups for nearly 40 years up until Popovic's death in 2001.


This self-titled effort, Indexi's debut LP from 1974, collects tracks originally recorded in the late 1960s-early 1970s period, including a mix of both straight-ahead and avant-garde material. At this point in the band's history, they sound as if they were influenced by various Yugoslavian folk music styles in addition to 1960s British rock bands that featured prominent organ such as Deep Purple, Caravan, and Procol Harum. Indexi seems to have had as many keyboard players pass through their ranks as there were drummers in Spinal Tap, but my research suggests that the organist on these tracks is either Kornelije Kovac or Enco Lesic. Such sources also indicate that Miroslav Saranovic is probably the percussionist on most if not all the selections and that second guitarist Ismet Aranutalic may be present on some of the earlier recordings as well. Indexi starts off with "
Svijet U Kojem Zivim" ("The World We Live In") and "Krivac Si Ti" ("The Culprit Is You"), two tough rockers that showcase the keyboardist and Redzic's dextrous bass playing. Despite the fact that my understanding of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian (all extremely similar languages that some argue are essentially the same) can be considered extremely limited at best, I'm guessing that "Budi Kao More" ("Be Like the Sea") is more of a romantic number judging by its mellower instrumental tone. "Da Sam Ja Netko" ("If I Were Someone") returns to rock territory and contains some tremendous distorted electric guitar presumably from Kovacevic. Due in large part to its furiously strummed acoustic guitars and infectious-even-if-you-don't-understand-it refrain, "Sve Ove Godine" ("All These Years") sold in huge numbers during the early 1970s and continues to show up on compilations of Yugoslavian hit recordings from that era. In similar fashion, the ethereal "Sanjam (Zgb 72)" ("Dream [Zagreb, 1972]") was so popular in its day that it has earned a place as a Yugo Rock standard. I've heard at least a few interpretations of this song by considerably more middle-of-the-road performers while in the company of Croatians, and they've always been a bit surprised that I'm familiar with the original Indexi version. The LP's finest moment belongs to the mind-blowing "Plima" ("High Tide"), which is quite simply one of the greatest psychedelic songs from the late 1960s ever recorded in any language. Most readers won't understand a word of its lyrics, but with the band's nods to early Status Quo and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd - not to mention the jaw-dropping guitar solo about halfway through - there is still plenty here to enjoy. With its soothing acoustic guitars and flute arragngements, "Balada" ("Ballad") brings matters to a delightfully tranquil conclusion and transports this writer back to carefree days spent relaxing on the sun-kissed Dalmatian coast.

1. Svijet U Kojem Zivim
2. Krivac Si Ti
3. Budi Kao More
4. Da Sam Ja Netko
5. Sve Ove Godine
6. Sanjam (Zgb 72)
7. Plima
8. Balada