A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: September 2004
by Tom Hull
This is the first time in the almost two years I've been writing this column where I have any hip hop albums. (Well, except for that early Buck 65 compilation, if you remember back that far.) It's a bit surprising that it's worked out this way. My new album year-end lists feature quite a bit of hip hop -- mostly underground, but I've been known to praise Nelly and Ludacris, as well as more critic-certified names like OutKast and Public Enemy and Jay-Z and De La Soul and the Roots. On the other hand, it's relatively new music and the reissues are relatively few and far between. Also, I don't get much in the mail, and I'm much more likely to buy new albums to try to keep up than compilations to evaluate. Expect more in the future: it's the most vital popular music of the last twenty years.
Expect more world music too -- long promised, but I'm broadening the net. Anything to not think about the dreary state of this union, as revealed in electoral victory of a party that is anti-peace, anti-equality, anti-freedom, anti-future, anti-music, and even anti-every decent impulse I remember from Bible School -- guess we were too young then to talk about sex, but now I gather they're anti-that too. With four more years of bad vibrations promised from Washington, listen to all the good music you can.
Arild Andersen: Rarum XIX: Selected Recordings (1975-99 , ECM). Jazz in Scandinavia took a fateful turn when George Russell arrived, putting aside earlier bebop influences to evolve into something more avant yet distinctively nordic. The most directly influenced were Jan Garbarek (saxophones), Terje Rypdal (guitar), Arild Andersen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums), and to a huge extent Manfred Eicher built ECM -- easily the most prodigious European jazz label of the last 30 years -- and its trademark freeze-dried sound around their work. Andersen has recorded over a dozen albums under his own name or that of his late '80s band Masqualero, which featured pianist Jon Balke and introduced trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. The Rarum series often runs into trouble trying to mix and match pieces that don't fit well, but by focusing sharply on the bass, this one manages the shifts between quiet and dynamic, simple and complex. A-
The Hip Hop Box (1979-2003 , Hip-O, 4CD). The fifty years after Brown vs. Board of Education were bisected by "Rapper's Delight" -- the anchor for this four-disc, 25th anniversary set. Much has been achieved along the path to integration, but distinctly Afro-American culture has, if anything, gathered strength. None of the songs on the now canonical first disc here were big hits -- their invention shrouded in obscurity during the Dark Age of Ronald Reagan. But by Eric B. & Rakim's 1988's "Follow the Leader," which opens disc two, rap was poised to bust down doors. The second disc spans just two years, but that's all it took to spin out everything from Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest to 2 Live Crew to Ice-T to Biz Markie. Genre comps are usually meant to introduce wary outsiders to a music they don't much know, and the first two discs here do the job without watering anything down. But genre comps also tend to impose the compiler's concept onto a genre, which brings us to the last two discs. Hip-hop expanded and evolved and mutated from 1991 on, so that if you turned twenty serious fans loose to summarize the past 13 years on two CDs, it's doubtful that any two would share more than four songs. It's tempting to attribute this particular set to the licensing budget: Only about a third of what's here comes from labels owned by Hip-O's corporate parents, the Universal megalith, and they're increasingly concentrated on the latter discs, including the final five songs. But most of what the fourth disc does is to spotlight the era's major commercial producers -- Dr. Dre, Timbaland, the Neptunes -- and it's more consistently listenable than I would have expected. That's another thing comps are for: salvaging good tracks from albums you wouldn't bother with. A-
George Lewis: Ice Cream (1953 , Delmark). Among ancient New Orleans trumpeters, Buddy Bolden was an unrecorded legend and Freddie Keppard barely got his cup of coffee, but once Bunk Johnson got a new set of teeth in 1942, his comeback kicked off a revival of classic New Orleans jazz. The chief beneficiary of the revival was Johnson's clarinet player, the thin, unassuming George Lewis. Never more than a sideman in the old days, Lewis toured the world and recorded dozens of albums from the mid-'40s to his death in 1968. His was a music that had been frozen in time since Louis Armstrong's revolution, but that hardly detracts from the eloquence of his clarinet or the rousing good cheer of his band. With so many records so fundamentally similar distinctions are subtle. This one was cut by Lewis' most typical group, and is a fine introduction to their art. Better still is The Beverly Caverns Sessions (Good Time Jazz), cut a month earlier with the same group: the clarinet a bit lighter, the trombone a bit heavier, the trumpet a bit more shiny, fewer vocals, marginal distinctions that somehow add up. B+
Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set (1972-85 , Ayler, 5CD). The Cecil Taylor Unit was led and dominated by the explosive pianist, but the melodic core of their work came from alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who played with Taylor from 1961 until shortly before he died in 1986. Lyons was a shy perfectionist who took Charlie Parker's idea (or was that Chairman Mao's) of perpetual revolution into realms Parker never imagined, but he recorded so rarely on his own that the only people who have ever heard of him are Cecil Taylor fanatics. This box won't change that, but five packed CDs of solos, trios, and quartets led by Lyons puts the man into much clearer focus than he's ever enjoyed before. The first disc, where he shares the front line with trumpeter Raphé Malik, is terrific fun. The last two spotlight Karen Borca's jazz bassoon, a sharp edged bottom to Lyons' alto. The rest is more educational: a deliberately paced solo session, a blisteringly fast trio, a revealing snatch of interview. Also, the booklet is invaluable. A-
Oumou Sangare: Oumou (1989-2000 , World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2CD). Robert Christgau called her first album "a Sahel version of early Dolly Parton--with a deeper groove." Good groove is often reason enough to listen to African music, but the most striking thing about Sangare was her natural feminism. Indeed, the booklet to this comp -- six recent songs from a Mali-only cassette mixed with thick slices from her three U.S. albums to sum up her career-to-date -- is worth reading for her explanations of her songs. But the music holds up fine without explication: groove, grit, soul. A
Shrimp Boat: Something Grand (1985-93 , Aum Fidelity, 3CD). Just as flowers yearn for sunlight, rock groups seek popularity. The aesthetics of rock have always been grounded in giving the people what they want. Even bands that never had the slightest commercial success sounded like they were trying. But eventually some bands, like this one from Chicago, figured the odds against superstardom and kept to obscurity with all eyes open. The effect is even more exaggerated because superfan Stephen Joerg didn't do the obvious thing and re-release Shrimp Boat's actual albums or cherry pick them to make an appealing best-of. No, he filled up three CDs with marginalia. (Early adopters also get a bonus live CD.) The early band specialized in post-Velvets alt-country grooves, sometimes with banjo. The later band picked up a couple of sax players and dabbled in free jazz over fixed beats. In between they experiment, sometimes wonderfully: "Ollie's Song" is built around a sample of Oliver North's Iran-Contra perjury; "Limerick Dub" just flows and flows amidst little blips of horns and guitar and electronics; "Rocks Are Oil" and "Honeyside" have grooves that bear comparison to the Feelies (or, for newbies, the Strokes). But they also thrash and squeal and fart around -- as appealing to fans as mischievous children are to grandparents. A-
Tomasz Stanko: Rarum XVII: Selected Recordings (1975-98 , ECM). One of the great trumpet players of our era comes from Poland. Back in the bad old days of Communism he cut his teeth working with Roman Polanski's favorite composer, Kryzystof Komeda; even before the Cold War melted, he could slip into the free world, perhaps becuase his jazz was already free. His ECM records run slower, darker, more atmospheric than the records he recorded in Poland, but that's par for the course with ECM. The sampler, like the rest of the Rarum series, jumps around, losing the continuity of masterpieces like Leosia and Litania, in order to bring in a wider range of experiences. One thing to look out for is the contrast in the drummers, especially between Tony Oxley (a dazzlingly swift improviser with a light touch) and Edward Vesala (a guy who plays heavy and moves the world with him). A-
Steinski's Burning Out of Control: The Sugarhill Mix (1972-2003, Antidote). Sugarhill Records may have put rap on the map, but in their heyday I usually found their beats square and their rhymes soporific, and my kneejerk reaction kept me away from the excitement for much too long. Steinski had been an underground legend for over a decade before I scored his uncleared and presumably illegal Nothing to Fear: A Rough Mix -- an astonishingly original work of art even if every note and syllable on it has been pilfered from somewhere else. This meeting is more obvious: set against the backdrop of a fire destroying Sugarhill's tapes, Steinski narrates his love of the music, and makes much of his case. A-
Hound Dog Taylor: Release the Hound (1971-75 , Alligator). Taylor's concept was that if Elmore James had rocked harder and fretted less he would have had more fun. Taylor sure did. He called his band the Houserockers because that's what they did, and that all anyone needed to know. Bruce Iglauer fell so hard for Taylor that he founded Alligator Records just to record him, and cut three genuinely houserocking albums before Taylor's death in 1975. Alligator went on to become one of the most important blues labels of the last 30 years, but the urge to go back to their roots finally sent them back to the vaults to round up this passel of live scraps. It's loose, sloppy even, not all that well recorded, and, surprise, even more fun than his rock solid studio albums. A-
The Vulgar Boatmen: Wide Awake (1989-95 , No Nostalgia). Robert Ray taught English and Film Studies in Florida. Dale Lawrence, 14 years younger, lived in Indiana. They wrote songs via long distance mail, rehearsed them with parallel bands, and got together to record three albums. It's not clear whether their methodology drove them to simplicity or merely rewarded it, but they came up with the archetypal expression of the Velvets-inspired Amerindie rhythm, and they built song after song around it. The Feelies were fancier rhythmically. The Go-Betweens were more fertile lyrically. The Silos and the Blake Babies and dozens if not hundreds of other bands were comparable, if only briefly, but none were so consistent, perhaps because none did more with less. A-
Introduction written on Nov. 7, 2004. This was originally supposed to be the August column, but delays in posting, and further delays in writing, caused August to be renumbered September and September to be renumbered November. The latter should be done later in the month, then we'll try to get back on monthly schedule.Links:
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.