Record Report (#1): August 3, 2006

by Tom Hull

This is a new column, so I thought I should write a little introduction to give you a rough idea how it works. The basic idea is to write something useful about each record in as few words as possible. This spares you from having to skim through a lot of blather, and lets me cover a lot of records.

Each starts with the artist name and title, then the label in parentheses. If the music is old I also include the recording dates in the parens. If I don't provide a date, assume it was recorded in the last year or two. Then comes the review, a letter grade, followed by a keyword or two in brackets. The keywords are just there in case you only care about certain kinds of music. That way, you can skim for the keywords, back up to the grades, then decide whether you want to invest the 30-90 seconds it takes to read the review. I listen to all kinds myself, and predict that over time I'll wind up with similar numbers of rap and country albums -- to pick what many folks regard as two musics that don't mix. The grades tell you whether I like the record or not. The meanings should be intuitive, but see the "Note on grades" at the end for the gory details.

As for me, I'm just some guy who's spent 35 years listening to well over 10,000 records an average of ten hours per day. Keeps me sane, and moderately happy -- that's more than a lot of folks can claim.

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino): Britain's award-winning "best new band" gets great press and decent sales here because they back up the hype unpretentiously, at least in the music. Their post-punk plays clean, changing speeds and layering guitars, the heavy accent so clearly enunciated, their wit is shrewd enough if doesn't matter if you don't get it. A- [rock]

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Stoa (ECM): Citing James Brown as well as Akira Kurosawa, Bärtsch's "Zen-funk" is minimalism that doesn't risk inscrutability by sticking too long in the groove. Built from repeating piano figures with with clarinet, bass, and a double dose of percussion for springworks, these "modules" improvise not note by note but section by unexpected section. A- [jazz]

Michael Bolton: Bolton Swings Sinatra (Concord): The band here is slicker than Billy May's and hotter than Nelson Riddle's, which means on average it isn't up to either. But the real problem, of course, is the singer, not the song. Otherwise, Pat Boone would do for Little Richard. C+ [pop vocals]

Johnny Cash: Personal File (1973-82, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): The title comes from the label of a box of tapes found in Cash's studio. Nothing more than voice and guitar, some originals but mostly covers -- one a spoken poem, several stories. In form and content they anticipate Cash's endgame, when Rick Rubin pitched songs for no more reason than he wanted to hear Cash sing them, and Cash kept singing them even when his voice was shot. With none of the later frailty, these are the fruits of middle age, confident in experience and skills. The compilers split them up into secular and sacred sides. The latter falters early on, but closes with three great songs done so definitively I forget who made them famous. A- [country]

Los de Abajo: LDA v the Lunatics (Real World): Rock en español may run much the same stylistic and qualitative gamut as the English language stuff, which makes me dread their take on Journey or Genesis, but this is more like the Clash, or at least the Specials -- the source of the album title. But note that the English version of "The Lunatics," with Special Neville Staples on board, rocks much harder than the one in Spanish. A- [world, rock]

Maria Muldaur: Sweet Lovin' Ol' Soul (Stony Plain): A Memphis Minnie tribute plus loosely related country blues -- same idea, similar songs, many of the same guests as her Richland Woman Blues, a distaff match for ZZ Top's Deguello and Dr. John's Gumbo: new albums that sum up old music so completely they stand on their own; this is a second helping, nearly as satisfying as the first. A- [blues]

Note on grades: I don't presume to judge, even though, like everyone, I do. Assigning grades just saves us all a lot of time. It saves me from having to write things like "pretty good" or "not so bad" -- and saves you from having to parse those adjectives. The grades don't tell you whether you'll like the record -- that depends at least as much on you, so if you're one of those people who can't stand country or rap, it's up to you to take that into account. I like both just fine, except when they're lousy, which happens to both. Over time you'll figure out how to map what I say to what you're interested in.

For now, I just want to point out that a B record is an average good one: you can listen to it with some pleasure and little pain, recognizing that the artist is skilled and professional. But there's no real need to listen to B records: plenty records do better, and I work hard to find them. A B+ is commendable, a record that has something special going for it, or at least is a fine example of the artist's craft. As a rule of thumb, if you like that kind of music, you'll like that record. But the A- records are the ones that I start to get excited about. They may have minor flaws or inconsistencies, but they do something special more often than not. Higher grades, the rare A and the extremely rare A+, are records that I think everyone should, and will, enjoy immensely.

Anything below B has something wrong with it, and there are too many ways to do that to list. The more annoying the lower the grade, but the grades rarely get down to D -- life's too short to figure out how bad really bad records really are. In theory, E is the bottom of the scale, reserved for utter atrocities with no redeeming value whatsoever.