A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: July 2003
by Tom Hull
I struck out on world music this month, although that's mostly because I've been putting some of the African and Jamaican in the pipeline off until I sort out some loose ends. So expect the pendulum to swing back next month. After all, I was short on country last month. Meanwhile, we can take a look at the old Depression for insight, solace, or just to shake us up a bit.
The Very Best of the Beach Boys: Sounds of Summer (1962-88 , Capitol). The long career of the Beach Boys cleaves into at least three phases: the all-American fun band, the Brian-as-tortured-genius period, and Mike Love's oldies show. Not surprisingly, their hits were front-loaded, and the first ten cuts are so thoughtless and ebullient it makes one proud to be a spoiled American. And the tortured artist period was good for their most precious albums (Pet Sounds, Wild Honey, maybe even Sunflower) -- as well as some of their worst (Friends, Surf's Up, maybe even So Tough). But the final phase, which I'm now tempted to date from 1976's Brian-in-recovery oldies album 15 Big Ones (especially since there's no trace here of 1977's oddball Love You), is only good for five songs here -- each more received than the previous, and sensibly buried in the middle here, surrounded by earlier/sharper remakes ("Barbara Ann," "Do You Wanna Dance," etc.). This sounds good enough, but how useful is this really? Something like Elvis Presley's 30 #1 Hits had a point to make about how much the young and old Presleys had in common, but what's the point here? Maybe that, Brian or no Brian, the further you progress through the Beach Boys' discography the more desperate they become to recapitulate their original idea, which was to harmonize like the corn-fed, sun-drenched Four Freshmen fans they were. But the fact is that they were also much weirder, and much goofier, and much lamer than you can imagine, unless you've taken the pains to dig through their dregs. Which are more interesting, even if not as good, as their hits. B+
The Essential Dave Brubeck (1949-2002 , Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD). When Brubeck first emerged, he was an oddity on a jazz scene that lionized purely-intuitive players like Erroll Garner, who couldn't read a note of music: Brubeck was not merely white, but college educated, trained in the classics and the rarefied 12-tone and serialist music of the time. And he had a gimmick which flaunted his education: he liked to work in odd time signatures. His quartet, which complemented his piano with Paul Desmond's delicious alto sax, seemed more likely to play colleges than bars, and he soon developed an unseemly degree of success, becoming the first jazz musician ever to have his mug framed on the cover of Time. Most of which has turned out to be way beside the point: in 1949 Brubeck observed that jazz would absorb world music, "like a sponge." That was the future Brubeck relished when he chose jazz over academia, and that's what he has done in the fifty-plus years since: jazz has grown much as he anticipated, and he's worked dilligently to make that happen. This is a superb compilation of Brubeck's career, adding early and late tracks to slices of his many Columbia albums, spanning not just time but the broad range of his work. And even if the piano doesn't delight you instantly, Desmond will. A
The Essential Byrds (1965-71 , Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD). In the beginning they seemed to be little more than commercializers for their favorite songwriter, one B. Dylan. In the end they're perhaps best remembered as a band that Gram Parsons once played in. In the former guise they could claim to have invented folk-rock; in the latter, country-rock. But nothing much came out of either, even though folk and/or country mutated into rock many times hence. And while their alumni made dozens of albums later, only Parsons had any notable impact. So why do the Byrds seem so important? I think it's partly because they caught the leading edge of so many trends -- not just folk-rock and country-rock, but in some ways they anticipated psychedelia and glam and may even have been the California burbs' answer to the village green Kinks. But it's also hype: that they started out groomed for stardom, then as rock grew more and more pretentious they were successfully remodeled as auteurs. One can nitpick here, but these two discs do a good job of summing them up: the first condenses their first four albums, almost an exact match for Greatest Hits; the second more usefully samples high points and oddities from the remaining seven albums, with only two cuts from the indispensible Sweetheart of the Rodeo. A-
Dope & Glory: Reefer Songs der 30er & 40er Jahre (1925-47 , Trikont, 2 CD). Marijuana was legal in the U.S. until 1937, and efforts to stamp out its use -- the U.S. currently busts some 750,000 citizens a year -- don't seem to do much more than drive up the price and tempt the poor with cheaper, riskier drugs. Even if musicians indulged no more than the population at large, there would be scads of reefer songs, and of course there are: ranging from Frankie Jaxon (two of the best cuts here) in the '20s up through Nelly and NERD. Thematic compilations surface every now and then, but this one is one of the richest, not so much for its theme as for its history of jive. Long before Peter Tosh offered to advertise it, there was Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong. Most are less than explicit (my own take on spinach isn't far from Julia Lee's "Spinach Song"), and Armstrong's "Muggles" and Don Redman's "Chant of the Weed" are just instrumentals, guilty only by implication. With stuff this clever, you don't even have to toke to get a giggle. A-
Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music (1923-39 , Trikont). It seems likely that women played a role in the formation of country music, but before the '40s there's very little evidence of this on record. There was Patsy Montana's big 1935 hit "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," and in the '40s Molly O'Day, Rose Maddox, and finally Kitty Wells made major marks. But aside from Montana, almost all of the female voices in old-time country music were embedded in mixed groups (Carter Family, Chuck Wagon Gang), or more rarely in all-girl groups (Coon Creek Girls). So the initial attraction of this set is the allure of discovering something new and different, and in that it may be counted a success. Sure, six cuts are by artists I've mentioned thus far, but the remaining 19 cuts are exceptionally obscure -- I can find no more than a third of them even in a reference as huge as AMG's website. The songs are all over the map. They start out with three paeans to the single life (Lulu Belle's "Wish I Was a Single Girl Again" leads off with a wallop), but that seems to have exhausted the vein. The other relationship songs are less happy affairs, and "All the Good Times Are Past and Gone" is a typical sentiment. And finally there is no shortage of country gospel. But what ties them together are the rich twangs of the singers, plus a lot of banjo. And special note should be made of the DeZurik Sisters, who yodel in tones God originally allotted to birds. A
Johnny Hodges: The Jeep Is Jumpin' (1937-52 , Proper, 4 CD). Hodges was the crown jewel in Duke Ellington's band. He had such beautiful tone and stately grace that when Benny Carter was asked what he had gleaned from Hodges, his answer was that he had learned never to play Hodges' songs. I remember a film clip of Ellington dashing off a new piece of music and handing it off to Hodges; as Hodges puzzled his way through it, the view cut back to Ellington, who couldn't have been prouder when his children were born. Still, Hodges always felt unappreciated (or at least underpaid), and longed to lead his own orchestra -- which he did for a few years in the early '50s, not coincidentaly the least momentous stretch in Ellington's discography. But as early as 1937, Hodges led various small spinoffs, often with Ellington on piano. This box restricts itself to sessions under Hodges' name, and just inches into Hodges' breakaway Verve sessions -- which sound as Ellingtonian as ever. But then what would Ellington have sounded like without Hodges? A
The John Kirby Sextet: Complete Columbia & RCA Victor Recordings (1939-42, Definitive, 2 CD). Kirby was a bassist of some distinction with the Fletcher Henderson band, but his collaborators here were equally important: Henderson's veteran clarinetist Buster Bailey, future Armstrong All Star Billy Kyle, future Ellington stalwart Russell Procope, and most of all the redoubtable Charlie Shavers, whose trumpet is usually muted here. The Kirby Sextet was billed as "the biggest little band in the land," but it's may be more accurate to dub them the coolest band in small group swing. They wore tuxes and bow ties, and their songbook drew on guys with names like Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorak as well as the usual suspects, although it's hard to tell which is which without a scorecard. This set sums them up nicely. A-
Roger Miller: All Time Greatest Hits (1964-85 , Mercury/Chronicles). On Jan. 11, 1964, Roger Miller had to fill out an album to go with the singles he cut the day before. Nashville LPs were slapdash affairs, afterthoughts to the singles, so Miller figured he could get away with some of the joke tunes he used to entertain his drinking buddies with. But two of those pieces of filler went top ten on the pop (not just country) charts, and when Miller followed them up with "King of the Road" he became a much bigger star than he imagined on "Kansas City Star." He went on TV talk shows and was funny as hell, then got his own variety show. And that was pretty much the end of his career as a songwriter of exceptional plainness and humility as well as raucous humor: five of the last six songs here were written by others, including the perfect-for-him "Where Have All the Average People Gone." Those late songs are the weak spot here, but the real flaw is the "Hits" in the title. Trying to sort Miller by chart position skips completely over his early songwriting in favor of a period when he was mostly coasting on past fame. But it also gives you an arbitrary mix even from his hit period -- at least compared to The Genius of Roger Miller (Mercury), his 3-CD box set, which may be excessive but provides a much fuller picture. A-
Bill Monroe: Anthology (1950-81 , MCA Nashville/Decca, 2 CD). Monroe's famous Columbia recordings featured Lester Flatt on guitar and most of the vocals, and Earl Scruggs on banjo. But when Flatt & Scruggs split to form their own band and Columbia signed them, Monroe left in a huff and went to Decca. As John Morthland put it, at Decca "Bill Monroe's bluegrass got higher and lonesomer." Even with the great Jimmy Martin available to sing, Monroe's own high-pitched vocals became more powerful and prominent, while greater emphasis on fiddle and Monroe's mandolin raised the intensity of the music. This set reprises classics like "Kentucky Waltz" and "Molly and Tenbrooks," covers country and blues standards, and brings in quite a bit of gospel. But Monroe's achievement here is so complete that they're all just part of his legacy. A
New Orleans Funk: The Original Sound of Funk (1960-75 , Soul Jazz). The bridge from Proper's '40s New Orleans box Gettin' Funky to the real funk here is Professor Longhair, whose 1964 "Big Chief," the booklet points out, predates James Brown's 1965 "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." True enough, but whereas Brown's funk was wound tight, there's a light springiness to these New Orleans rhythms, an echo of the notion that New Orleans has always danced to the beat of a different drummer. (The 40-page booklet points out that New Orleans was the only place in the south where slaves were allowed to play drums, averring that they had a head start.) This set is built around those rhythms -- so consistent that you suspect the Meters' Ziggy Modeliste of working under aliases -- and the material seems to be selected to reinforce the beat rather than to cash in on the names. That's scholarship for you. A
Bud Powell: Paris Sessions (1957-64 , Pablo). Powell is widely considered to be the greatest of bebop pianists, but he incurred a number of traumas in his short life, including a severe beating in 1945 and incarceration in mental hospitals, with their drugs and shock treatments. In 1959 he relocated to Paris, where he was befriended by a fan, Francis Paudras, who managed to record twelve LPs worth of Powell performances. While it's widely held that Powell's skills declined as time took its toll, there are at least exceptions to that rule: for one example, his guest spot on Mingus at Antibes (1960) is the apex of an astonishing record. This set selects highlights from the Paudras tapes, mostly just Powell trios, but a couple of cuts have guest horns. The sound is variable, but reportedly much improved over the LPs, and the music is instantly recognizable Powell, with the plus that he gets to stretch out a bit compared to his legendary 78s. A-
When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (1928-40 , Bluebird). From Eddie Cantor's too-pained-to-be-funny "Tips on the Stockmarket" to Reverend Gates' hard learned "President Roosevelt Is Everybody's Friend," this chronicles America's Great Depression as definitively as anything I've heard. The blues here are as down-and-out as you can imagine, but they're outnumbered by paeans to the farmers and sprightly, morbid show tunes. But Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" is more like down-and-pissed, and many of these songs focus on the disgraceful gap between rich and poor. "Poor Man's Heaven" itself isn't much more than a revenge fantasy, but Bob Miller's "The Rich Man and the Poor Man" is sharply reasoned, and no less true today. But the most powerful songs here are the show tunes, because the everymen they appeal to feel more than the pain: they feel the loss. The poor may always be with ye, but when the middle classes find themselves in the same leaky boat, something is terribly amiss with the power classes. When this happened in the '30s that was a tragedy; if it happens again, as seems more and more likely with the Republicans dismantling the New Deal safety net, gilding the rich, stripping the poor, and flaunting their awesome power to destroy, that will be profoundly stupid. This disc won't help you figure that out, but if it don't get you thinking about it, you're part of the problem. A
Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.