A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: April 2004
by Tom Hull
Late this month, with plenty of catching up to do, and more next time out. My initial projected breakdown has broken down -- there's just not enough world music coming my way.
The Beatles: Let It Be . . . Naked (1970 , Apple/Capitol). Although they had been fracturing ever since Sgt. Pepper was proclaimed the complete masterpiece that it in fact was, this was the end of the road. Still, The Beatles and Abbey Road were clever enough that at the time they sounded idiosyncratic rather than degenerate. This one could have been viewed as a back-to-their-roots retro move, but when the powers that be heard it they found it lacking, and brought in has-been superproducer Phil Spector to tart it up. Thirty-plus years later the powers that be are offering us a chance to hear what they had discarded -- the album stripped bare. Thank McCartney's aesthetics and EMI's greed for making it possible, but the inevitable conclusion is that it still don't amount to much more than hits plus filler -- great hits, but only "Two of Us" stands out among the rest. Although the bonus disc of studio chatter intends to prove that the band was still talking to each other, it doesn't prove that they were still playing together. B+
Danger Mouse Presents: The Grey Album (2004, bootleg). EMI sued to keep this bootleg off the market, but it's been reviewed all over the major media anyway (Entertainment Weekly proclaimed it "a startlingly, shockingly wonderful piece of pop art"). EMI's legal interest is the music that Danger Mouse set Jay-Z's Black Album raps to has been clipped from the Beatles' "white album": black mixed with white gives us grey, get it? Actually, Jay-Z has more to fret about here than EMI does -- nobody will take this as a substitute for The Beatles, but this is a straight alternative to his legit album. But then the Beatles are the most jealously guarded recorded music in the industry. Obviously, it's not sacrilege to muck with their music, as EMI did with Let It Be, but it's a matter of turf. So whether you ever see this in a store depends on the lawyers and bean counters. But while the chop job on the music is rather interesting, that he's using the Beatles for the backdrop is merely cute. It could just as well be something else, and it could be better. B+
Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Off the Coast of Me (1980 , Rainman). While it's possible to look back on August Darnell's first Kid Creole album as the birthplace of retro swing, that's less fair than blaming Led Zeppelin for heavy metal. What Darnell did was sui generis: you can identify influences from Cab Calloway to Carmen Miranda, you can point to the uptown elegance of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and to the downtown rancor of no wave raver James White (name checked in "Darrio"), but nobody else ever made music like this: new wave latino disco jive ("Lili Marlene" in German, no less) that, yes, is retro and swing and a soap opera to boot. The Coconuts, after all, weren't just eye candy: they taunted and teased the beleaguered Kid, berating him as "Mister Softee" while begging him to get them passes to Club 54. The music isn't as sharp as it became on the following albums, because Michael Zilkha got so excited he released the demos. The reissue adds more demos, making it all the more historic. Back then this sounded like the future. Today it just sounds sui generis. A-
Mutant Disco: A Subtle Dislocation of the Norm (1978-82 , ZE, 2CD). Back around 1975 disco had crossed over from black dance music to the Bee Gees, and the Trouser Press rockers -- the ones who were waiting for punk and new wave to happen -- hated disco. By 1985 disco and new wave were over as pop music, but underground, in the dancehalls, they were hard to distinguish, eventually merging in bands like New Order. In between strange things happened, like August Darnell dropping the names of new wave clubs on the debut album of his latino-retro-disco band, Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Darnell recorded for Michael Zilkha's ZE Records, along with no wavers like James Chance (d/b/a James White & the Blacks), studio freaks like the Was Brothers, and disco divas like Lizzy Mercier Descloux. This compilation keeps the dance beat steady, even through the demented "Contort Yourself." It is long on obscure one-shots, limiting Kid Creole to two cuts, while lavishing three (including Ringo's "Drive My Car") by the deliciously tacky Cristina. Which makes it a useful resource, and goes to show that the most interesting mutations are to the genes that code for humor. A-
N.Y No Wave: The Ultimate East Village 80's Soundtrack (1978-80 , ZE). Forget the subtitle: having lived there at the time, I can assure you that everyone here was extreme fringe -- although "Contort Yourself" (James White & the Blacks, previously d/b/a the Contortions) and "Lady Scarface" (Lydia Lunch) were personal faves back then, and are as brilliant now as then. I also have to wonder how inventive that fringe was, since the predominant aesthetic here comes from the early Velvet Underground: time and again you hear a guitar tone that brings to mind "Black Angel's Death Song." Or some sax that tried to run Pharoah Sanders, or maybe Ornette Coleman, through the Velvets' sound chamber. Or a vocalist whose main intent was to make Nico relatively wholesome. All of this was conceived in a New York where Television and Talking Heads had gone to the majors, who also owned the Clash and the Sex Pistols -- a New York where the next generation of bands was desperate to distinguish themselves, so they made some of the most desperate music ever made. It went nowhere, which is why it doesn't sound beat to death today: punk went hardcore, disco went underground, funk went hip-hop, Amerindie keyed off the more melodic post-Cale Velvets. The one real talent here, Arto Lindsay, didn't emerge until he surrendered himself to samba, and the one major follower of this scene, Sonic Youth, didn't come along until it was too late to establish continuity or roots. Two great songs here; many interesting, some just archival. B+
Ultimate Dolly Parton (1970-88 , RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage). As someone who grew up watching Porter Wagoner, she'll always be Miss Dolly to me: a thin voiced, down home miniaturist who could be naive, insightful, humble, and ambitious. When she first went to Hollywood she seemed like a natural, but before long she was covering Carole Bayer Sager songs and duetting with Kenny Rogers. She fell for her fame, becoming a TV joke. Christine Lavin once averred that ZZ Top had become prisoners of their beards; she could just as well have pegged Parton as a prisoner of her breasts. Parton recorded for RCA from 1966 to 1987, and starting in 1970 RCA has repackaged her into nearly a dozen best-ofs. Unfortunately, her best-ofs have gotten progressively worse, so I suppose it's no surprise that "ultimate" here is a synonym for "nadir." Nothing from her first best-of made the cut here -- not "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)," not even "Just Because I'm a Woman." Her second (and best) best-of fared better, but even there the cornier songs are now favored, like "Love Is Like a Butterfly." And from 1977 on it gets worse -- the only song with any backbone to it is her self-penned "9 to 5." The two cross-licensed items at the end don't do us any favors either. B
Elvis Presley: Close Up (1957-72 , RCA/BMG Heritage, 4CD). Hard to believe that anyone could still find four CDs of previously unreleased Elvis, but here it is, all boxed up and nicely documented: one disc of tricked-up stereo from the '50s, a second of early '60s movie cuts, a third of late '60s Nashville, and finally a 1972 live concert. The theory is that these outtakes and cast-offs will give us new insight into the creative process, but mostly they reveal that Elvis recorded a lot of takes before he was done. For instance, here we have take 16 of "I Met Her Today" -- it's gonna be a long time before all the rest gets flushed out of RCA's vaults. Thing is, while everything here went unreleased for a reason, and some only belong on a bloopers reel, time and again I'm awestruck by the voice. I've never been inclined to worship the ground he walks on, so I find this fallible Elvis more appealing. But I also know that everything here has been done better elsewhere. E.g., for Elvis live, track down Tiger Man. B
Sam Rivers: Fuchsia Swing Song (1964 , Blue Note). Rivers, already past 40, got his first real break when a teenaged admirer of his (drummer Tony Williams) talked his boss (Miles Davis) into hiring Rivers as a last-minute substitute for George Coleman on Davis' 1964 tour of Japan. The tenure was brief -- Wayne Shorter got the Davis Quintet job, and you know the rest of that story. But the brief association gave Blue Note an angle to sell Rivers' first album, as did the presence of Williams and Ron Carter. Rivers has spent all of what is now a very long career on the tattered edge of the avant-garde, so the surprising thing about this album is that it's not difficult at all. Which isn't to say that it's in anyone's mainstream. Williams and Carter produce a crackling rhythm, and Jaki Byard's piano solos are razor sharp. But Rivers himself is a revelation: his playing seems like a synthesis of all of the '60s free jazz styles, including ones at the time unheard, but still tethered to a rhythmic framework that he must have learned in his earliest days of r&b honking. That this is a quartet (and such a superb one) serves him especially well. One of the great albums of the era, as fresh today as then. A
Nina Simone: Anthology (1957-93 , RCA/BMG Heritage, 2CD). She had a voice that conveyed a lot of authority: deep, full, sometimes furious, always proud. But she made maddeningly inconsistent albums, which in turn yielded maddeningly inconsistent compilations. I've heard half a dozen, and while I have no doubt that this is the best, I wish it was better. The main problem is rooted in her lack of any consistent musical style. While her voice was unmistakable, and her piano distinctive, her choice of songs was all over the map, and she tended to follow them rather than make them her own. Except, that is, when she did, as with "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "To Love Somebody" (from the Bee Gees). Other high points include a classic Ray Charles take on "Trouble in Mind," a plaintive "Ne Me Quitte Pas," and the in-your-face "Mississippi Goddam." The problem is not a shortfall of worthy performances; it's that they don't cohere. Her fans don't mind this, but her critics do, and you probably know where you stand. As a critic, I can say that the first disc, sampling her early work on Bethlehem, Colpix, and Phillips, is as good as she gets, and the second, focusing on her period with RCA, is as typically uneven. I could do without the Beatles, the Dylan, the Jimmy Webb, the Daryl Hall, the piece from Hair, and especially the strings on "A Single Woman" -- but those, too, were her thing. The search to make sense of her stops here. A-
Soul Eyes: The Mal Waldron Memorial Album (1957-62 , Prestige). The late pianist was always most famous for having accompanied Billie Holiday during her waning years, but his own career extended beyond Holiday by 40+ years and many miles. His later work could be quite adventurous -- cf. The Git Go (1986, Soul Note) and Crowd Scene (1989, Soul Note), two larger groups with a lot of horns; Left Alone (1986, Evidence), with Jackie McLean in miraculous form; Songs of Love and Regret (1985, Freelance), an intimate duo with Marion Brown. But in his early years, which is what Prestige had to choose from in culling this loving memento, he showed a rare knack for crafting ballads, and exceptional skill at accompanying a wide range of other players -- Gene Ammons, Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy, John Coltrane. Most of these cuts were originally released under other names -- Holiday's "God Bless the Child" was on Webster Young's For Lady, his own "Dear Elaine" was on a Teddy Charles album, even his solo "A Portrait of Bud Powell" originally came out on a Charles Mingus comp. But the steady hand here is the pianist, and he's worth concentrating on. Monk's "Bye-Ya," with Lacy, is another standout, and Ammons closes out with a gorgeous piece. A-
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.