An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Monday, August 23, 2021
[PS: Posted an answer to a question about Obama and his legacy. Use this form to ask more questions.]
Music: Current count 36093  rated (+57), 221  unrated (+3).
Tom T. Hall died last week. Obituaries tended to overlook his 35 albums, but invariably mentioned the number one single he wrote in 1968, "Harper Valley PTA," for Jeannie C. Riley. Growing up in Wichita, I knew a little bit about country music -- mostly from watching, with bemused detachment, Porter Wagoner -- but I wasn't a fan. My brother and I got turned away at the door of a Grand Ole Opry show downtown, the doorman correctly surmising that we wanted the car show next door. I managed to catch a set by Ronnie & the Daytonas there: the first time I saw live music, and probably the only time until I saw Sly & the Family Stone in St. Louis.
That's was shortly after the first time I heard of Hall. I went to a party thrown by one of the Sociology professors. When I introduced myself to a guest, he responded: "I got all your records." I had a little speech problem, and never managed to say Hull clear enough not to be transcribed as the more common Hall. When I did finally hear Hall -- probably at the behest of George Lipsitz, who was taking time before going to graduate school, and was very much into country music at the time (although I also recall him introducing me to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and to Johnny Otis).
I only slowly got into country music, picking up occasional albums over the 1970s -- from Hall: We All Got Together and Faster Horses, finding In Search of a Song later -- finally making a serious effort in the 1990s to catch up with (damn near) everything I had missed. The best Hall compilation ever came out in 1988: The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs, 20 of them, originally on 2-LP, later on 1-CD. In 1995, I finally felt confident enough to write something about a new (and disappointing) Hall box, combined with a more favorable review of the 3-CD Roger Miller box. (Of course, I remembered Miller vividly from his mid-1960s TV show and crossover hits.) I called this Kings of the Road, and submitted it to The Voice, but elicited no interest (other than, I suppose, that a year later Robert Christgau invited me to review Rhino's series of jazz compilations, which I called Jazz for Dummies).
One thing I'd have to correct from the Hall piece is my claim Hall "hasn't recorded anything very interesting since ." I finally got around to Hall's 1978-80 RCA releases below, and a couple of them are pretty good. I wanted to dive into his early Mercury records, but I only found In Search of a Song on Napster, plus Ballad of Forty Dollars on YouTube. There are some post-1978 Mercury albums on Napster, so I may return to them.
Another son of Kentucky died last week: Don Everly. He seemed like an earlier generation, but he was a year younger than Hall, and his brother Phil (d. 2014) was younger still. They started off in their teens in the Everly Family group, then as a brother act had their first big hits in 1957 ("Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up Little Susie"), when Phil was 18. Beyond radio singles, my first introduction was 1964's The Very Best of the Everly Brothers -- disparaged now because they re-recorded their pre-1960 Cadence hits to juice up their less famous Warners songs, from "Cathy's Clown" to the ultra-maudlin "Ebony Eyes." I replayed it, and also Rhino's Cadence Classics, but didn't have much luck digging further, and didn't look into their solo careers or their reunion -- they were famous for not getting along.
Before Hall died, I mostly picked unheard records of Christgau's graded list, from Youssou N'Dour to Lobi Traoré. A couple reggae albums were suggested by a Sly & Robbie list of their favorites, but further down the list got hard to find. Tried to catch up with the demo queue, picking off the things with the earliest release dates, but wound up losing ground. Got a package from NoBusiness today. They'll be listed next week.
Bought a package of "shaved pork" last week. Seemed like the perfect thing for bulgogi. It's cut so thin you can't grill it. I dumped it into a cast iron skillet and boiled the marinade off. Pretty intense. Picture here
I saw a tweet recommending Josh Marshall: Notes from the Press Paroxysm as the Evacuation Flights Continue. I hadn't looked at TPM when I was writing up my Speaking of Afghanistan post last week because, well, most of what they publish is behind their firewall never struck me as worth the cost. (Also, I find it especially aggravating that much of what they hide consists of letters from readers, which presumably cost them nothing.) Still, it's a good article, both for pointing out that there is a substantial but rarely reported level of ongoing negotiation between the Taliban and virtually everyone, and for the term "press paroxysm." When I flipped through the Wichita Eagle this morning, I was appalled at the level of ignorance and cynical exploitation in everything they published on Afghanistan (and not just from columnists like Marc Thiessen, whose very existence is an affront to intelligence and human decency).
I tracked down a couple of earlier Marshall articles. You Wouldn't Know It From the US News Coverage, But . . . points out that the top US-backed Afghan politicos are all actively engaged in negotiating with the Taliban: Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, even (from Doha) Ashraf Ghani -- who precipitated this Taliban offensive by refusing to negotiate while US troops remained, and who affirmed the government collapse by fleeing Kabul. On the media, see: The Fall of Kabul, Washington and the Guys at the Fancy Magazines. The latter talks about the "feeding frenzy" reporters are prone to: seeing a politician flounder, they're more than happy to jump in and take a few shots. (Kind of like how my dog gives chase only after she sees the other animal turn away.) Anyone who expects sober analysis from such creatures is bound to be disappointed.
For what it's worth, I'm delighted that Biden has taken a firm stand for withdrawal, showing both courage and a grounding in reality. He has far from an unblemished reputation on Afghanistan, but there's little value in bringing that up now that he's learned the lesson, except to underscore that the lessons are clear enough to convince even him. What I worry about is that in the current din we won't learn what we need to from this 20-year failure. Even if their complaints aren't accepted, the endless repetition of their shared delusions crowds out the clear thought we need.
New records reviewed this week:
Daniel Carter: Playfield Vol 1: Sonar (2020 , Orbit577): Credited with "Horns and Reeds" here, first of three volumes, a single 28:58 piece, group includes Luisa Muhr (voice), Ayumi Ishito (sax), Nord piano, two guitars, bass, and drums. B+(*)
Daniel Carter: Playfield Vol. 2: The Middle (2020 , Orbit577): Same group, one 31:32 piece. B+(**)
Daniel Carter: Playfield Vol. 3: After Life (2020 , Orbit577): Another piece, this one 30:24. Starts with a bluesier voice, remaining more prominent here than on the other volumes. B+(*)
Tom Cohen: My Take (2021, Versa Music): Drummer, leads a set of organ trios through "Without a Song" and four pieces by 1950s saxophonists (Gigi Gryce, Benny Golson, Sonny Stitt, Wayne Shorter). With Joey DeFrancesco or Dave Posmontier on Hammond B-3, spots for saxophonists Tim Warfield and Ralph Bowen, and guitarist Steve Giordano. B+(**) [cd]
Paul Dunmall & Mark Sanders: Unity (2020 , 577): British sax & drums duo, Dunmall playing alto, tenor, and C melody saxophones. B+(**)
The Go! Team: Get Up Sequences Part One (2021, Memphis Industries): British alt/pop group, sixth album since 2004. Pretty upbeat, almost deliriously so (especially the finale). B+(***)
Jared Hall: Seen on the Scene (2018 , Origin): Trumpet player, from Seattle, second album, fairly classic-sounding hard bop quintet, with Vincent Herring (alto sax), piano, bass, and drums. Two Tadd Dameron pieces along with the originals. B+(**) [cd]
L.A. Cowboy: The Big Pitch (2021, Reconcile): Vehicle for singer-songwriter J. Frederick Millea, alias L.A. Cowboy. Discogs credits him/them with six albums 1997-98, nothing since -- evidently, a spat with industry execs caused him to give up. Hype sheet calls this "post-modern rock/swing fusion." Sounds like a Sinatra wannabe to me, but maybe there's something deeper going on. B [cd]
Lorde: Solar Power (2021, Universal): Pop star from New Zealand, Ella Yelich-O'Connor, third album. Laid back, somewhat dreamy, sinks in slowly, perhaps too much for my jaded pop reflexes. B+(**)
Francisco Mela: MPT Trio: Volume 1 (2020 , 577): Cuban drummer/percussionist, studied at Berklee, albums since 2006. Trio with Henry Paz (sax) and Juanma Trujillo (guitar). B+(**)
Lady Millea: I Don't Mind Missing You (2021, Reconcile): Jazz singer, from Los Angeles, daughter of L.A. Cowboy J. Frederick Millea, who wrote and arranged these nine songs. Nice voice. Songs are a mixed bag. B+(*) [cd]
Dave Miller Trio: The Mask-erade Is Over (2021, Summit): Piano player, "(49)" at Discogs, ninth trio album since 2010 (including 5 with his daughter, singer Rebecca DuMaine), 1 original, 13 standards, about half from jazz musicians. With Andrew Higgins (bass) and Bill Belasco (drums). B+(*) [cd]
Steve Million: What I Meant to Say (2019 , Origin): Pianist, based in Chicago, records at least since 1995 (title then was Million to One, followed up by Thanks a Million). Quartet reunites him with Steve Cardenas (guitar) and Ron Vincent (drums), who played together in Kansas City in the late 1970s, plus bassist John Sims. B+(*) [cd]
Mankwe Ndosi and Body MemOri: Felt/Not Said (2021, Auspice NOW): Vocalist, ties to Chicago and Minnesota, self-released debut from 2012, part of Nicole Mitchell/Black Earth. Backed with cello (Tomeka Reid), bass, and drums. Rather abstract, finding it a bit hard to follow. B+(*) [cdr]
Trineice Robinson: All or Nothing (2021, 4RM Music Productions): Teaches jazz voice at Princeton, seems to have a distinguished academic career, waited until 40 for her recording debut. Strong, skilled voice, resonant of gospel and r&b, co-produced by saxophonist Don Braden, with Cyrus Chestnut in the band. Wrote one song, lyrics for Wayne Shorter (used Jon Hendricks' for Monk), wide range of standards, including "What's Going On." B+(**) [cd]
Kalie Shorr: I Got Here by Accident (2021, Tmwrk, EP): Nashville singer-songwriter, originally from Maine, self-released an impressive debut album in 2019, then re-released it in 2020 on this label. Big, punchy sound, produced by Butch Walker. Five songs, all substantial, 15:02. A-
Alfie Templeman: Forever Isn't Long Enough (2021, Chess Club): British singer-songwriter, debut album at 18, EPs back to 2017. Plays lots of instruments. Has a rudimentary understanding of pop hooks. B+(**)
Waterparks: Greatest Hits (2021, 300 Entertainment): Houston band, suggested genres include pop punk and electropop, but none of those seem quite right. Released EPs from 2012, first album in 2016. This is their fourth album, not a compilation, and not much chance that any of these songs will be hits, but that's not for lack of hooks. B+(*)
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Cold Wave #1 (2017-20 , Soul Jazz): British reissue label, picks relatively recent records that were supposedly inspired by the the late 1970s/early 1980s "cold wave" genre: synth-based dance tracks, rare vocals, everything compact and, well, cold. B+(**)
Cold Wave #2 (2015-20 , Soul Jazz): Opens with three pretty good cuts, but Job Sifre's "At Least We Try" raises the level, and everything else rises with it. First volume took the chill too seriously. This reminds you that lots of interesting electronica has been happening in obscure corners, but sometimes it helps to mix it up a bit. A-
Paul Dunmall/Keith Tippett/Philip Gibbs/Pete Fairclough: Onosante (2000 , 577): Saxophones (plus fife and bagpipes), piano, guitar, and drums, released with a run of 100 back in the day, and unpacked in memory of the late pianist -- who is indeed remarkable here, but also in fine company. A-
Dave and Ansell Collins: Double Barrel (1971, Big Tree): Jamaican duo, singer Dave Barker and keyboardist Collins. Title song is one of the greatest rocksteady classics (lyric starts: "I am the magnificent"). Nothing else in its league, not much where Dave even gets a chance to sing, much less toast. The instrumentals are pretty seductive. B+(***)
The Everly Brothers: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958, Cadence): Brothers Don (1937-2021) and Phil (1939-2014), from Kentucky, sang in close harmony, scored two big hits in 1957 both on country and pop charts: "Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up Little Susie." Their first album was hits and filler, but for this second album they got conceptual: all old country songs, done simply with just bass (Floyd Chance) and their guitars, no singles, nothing with hit potential (well, except for Gene Autry). B+(**) [yt]
Tom T. Hall: Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs (1969, Mercury): First album, already trading on his reputation as a songwriter (soon to be storyteller), especially after Jeannie C. Riley sung his "Harper Valley PTA" to the top of the charts in 1968. Three songs made his first (1972) Greatest Hits, and "Cloudy Day" wouldn't have been amiss. Too many flowers among the rest. B+(**) [yt]
Tom T. Hall: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971-75 , Mercury): Nowadays, best to start with The Definitive Collection or, better still, The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (but not the 2-CD Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher box, not that someone couldn't compile 2 or 3 CDs worth of prime material, but the compilers are often tempted to dilute the shrewd observations with his more mawkish sentimental fare). At one point, it was possible to get this and the 1972 Greatest Hits on one CD, a real bargain, since superseded. Hall released 7 albums from 1972-75 (vs. 5 1969-71). Even so, this plucks two more songs from 1971's best-ever In Search of a Song. And like every other compilation, this inexplicably omits "Pamela Brown" (here in favor of "I Love" and "I Care" and "I Like Beer," not that I mind the latter). B+(***)
Tom T. Hall: Greatest Hits: Volume I & II (1967-75 , Mercury): An artifact of the early CD era, when the things cost twice as much as an LP, but sometimes could hold two. Re-reading Christgau on the separate volumes (graded B and D+) convinced me to nick the latter a notch, but until better compilations came around, this offered at least a dozen genius songs, and if the filler gets sappy or soppy, I don't buy that as simple marketing shtick. It's just who he is, and a big part of what made him such a treasure. A-
Tom T. Hall: New Train Same Rider (1978, RCA Victor): New label, not quite the same songwriter, but sometimes he sounds like he could be. B+(*)
Tom T. Hall: Places I've Done Time (1978, RCA Victor): Found himself a batch of stories this time -- "Grocery Truck," "Three Sofa Story," "Man Who Shot Himself," "Son of Clayton Delaney," "Great East Broadway Onion Championship of 1978" -- which lifts the personal ("I Couldn't Live in Southern California") and even the generic ("Gimme Peace"). None rank among his classics, which may be why he covers "Mr. Bojangles." B+(***)
Tom T. Hall: In Concert! Recorded Live at the Grand Ole Opry House (1979 , RCA Victor): Date not noted, but in Morello's twofer series this is slotted before a 1979 album, and he thanks RCA in his initial remarks -- aside from this, his RCA albums ended 1980. Highlight is the "I Like Beer" audience participation -- OK, but not what one hopes for. B
Tom T. Hall: Saturday Morning Songs (1979, RCA Victor): "For children of all ages," complete with "16 page coloring book." Second side has its own title: The "Is" Songs, as in "Easter Is," "Halloween Is," "Thanksgiving Is," "Christmas Is," "Your Birthday Is." Ten songs, all short, 22:07. Light and breezy, only occasionally shallow. Not something I expected to like at all. B+(**)
Tom T. Hall: Ol' T's in Town (1979, RCA Victor): One of his classic story songs -- "Greed Kills More People Than Whiskey," which would be more convincing if he tracked down the effects of greed on other people, not just the overstressed rich -- but his love and loss songs have gained some depth, and his sense of nostalgia is tuned about right. He was conscious enough about age to write "I'm Forty Now," and to retire a decade later. In between, the title may indicate that he's feeling old, or like his old self. A-
Tom T. Hall: Soldier of Fortune (1980, RCA Victor): Last album for RCA, aside from the live one released in 1983, when he returned to Mercury. Nothing especially memorable here, nothing terribly bad either (although "Me and Jimmie Rodgers" makes you wonder). B+(*)
Jackie Mittoo and the Soul Vendors: Evening Time (1968, Coxsone): Keyboard player for the Skatalites, second album under his own name. Instrumental, some classic grooves. A-
Youssou N'Dour: Djamil Inédits 84-85 (1984-85 , Celluloid): Not sure what the history of this is, but the covers suggest a live recording, a bit rough and ill-fitting. The star looks very young, but no doubt he is the star. The horns are a bit much. [Reissued 2005 with an extra track as Badou.] B+(*)
Youssou N'Dour: Eyes Open (1992, Columbia): Recorded in Dakar, but mixed in New York. Nonetheless, voice and rhythm uniquely his. B+(***)
Youssou N'Dour Et Le Super Etoile: Lii! (1996, Jololi): Superstar from Senegal, has only sporadically had his work released in the US -- from 1986-94 on Virgin and Columbia, then 2000-10 on Nonesuch -- although there is evidently more released locally, like the series of late-1990s cassettes like this one. B+(***) [yt]
Negativland: Helter Stupid (1989, SST): Bay area "plunderphonics" group, constructs sound collages simulating the most annoying aspects of trying to listen to radio while someone else is twiddling the dial. Or, as they put it, "Negativland considers their music thought-provoking, even humorous." That, from a piece that claims their song "Christianity Is Stupid" is responsible for mass murder. B-
Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (1981, Geffen): Multimedia artist, including film and performance art, grew up in Tokyo, moved to New York in 1953, married John Lennon in 1969, shortly before the Beatles broke up, and they collaborated on several records -- two brilliant Plastic Ono Band albums of his, weird conceptual shit of hers, a separation and reunion, finally the collaborative Double Fantasy. This follows on his death, the songswiting and production straightforward, the singing a little wobbly. Nice sax solo on the opener, courtesy of Michael Brecker. B+(***) [yt]
Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Between My Head and the Sky (2009, Chimera): The two songs Christgau picked out are better than I ever imagind. The others, well, are kind of all over the place. B+(*)
Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Take Me to the Land of Hell (2013, Chimera Music): I suppose what turned me off from her was the single-CD Walking on Thin Ice, the select subset from the 6-CD Onobox that Christgau graded A and asserted "ought to convert anybody with better taste than Albert Goldman -- namely, you." I hated it enough to grade it C+, then didn't like her 1995 Rising much better (B-, vs. A- for Christgau). This supposedly "outstrips" both the latter and 1981's less bracing Season of Glass. I don't know what to make of this smorgasbord of anti-genre exercises, even a hint of Marlene Dietrich. B+(***)
Earl Scruggs & Tom T. Hall: The Storyteller and the Banjo Man (1982, Columbia): Just two of Hall's story-songs ("The Enginers Don't Wave From the Trains Anymore" and "There Ain't No Country Music on the Jukebox"), one joint title ("A Lover's Farewell"). Hall is pictured on the cover with his guitar, but Randy Scruggs is the guitarist here, with Scruggs on two tracks (plus banjo, natch), Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Byron Berline on fiddle (and mandolin, though that's mostly Scruggs), so the bluegrass band is impeccable. Starts deep in Scruggs' songbook with "Song of the South," doesn't neglect "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms," winds up with a pretty nifty "No Expectations" (Richards & Jagger). B+(**)
Sly and Robbie: Sly and Robbie Present Taxi (1981, Mango): Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Jamaica's most legendary rhythm section, played on many albums from mid-1970s on. They introduced themselves as producers here, 12 songs by 10 artists (two each for Wailing Souls and Junior Delgado; one track credited by Dunbar, the others including stars Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. B+(***)
Chris Smither: I'm a Stranger Too! (1970, Poppy): Folk singer-songwriter, first album of what would turn into a long career -- although he didn't get to number four until 1991, after which he's released an album every 2-3 years. Eight originals, but the title comes from one of two Randy Newman songs (the third cover is from Neil Young). The originals pick up with "Love You Like a Man," which Bonnie Raitt retooled for her own purposes. B+(**)
Chris Smither: Don't It Drag On (1972, Poppy): Second album, the four covers more diverse (Bob Dylan, Willie McTell, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead), gives you something to recognize while the originals slowly sink in. B+(***)
Chris Smither: It Ain't Easy (1984, Adelphi): Smither recorded a third album in 1973, but it was shelved when the label (United Artists) closed, and didn't appear until 2005 (Honeysuckle Dog). It took another decade before Smither recorded another album. Despite the title, he makes this one as easy as possible: just guitar and voice, only three originals, with eleven covers, tapping into Chuck Berry twice. B+(**)
Chris Smither: Small Revelations (1996 , Hightone): Seventh album, on a 2-year cycle since 1991. B+(***)
Omar Souleyman: Highway to Hassake: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria (1994-2006 , Sublime Frequencies): Syrian (and now world) pop star, his style honed as a wedding singer, featuring an intense, high-speed attack which threatens to make his many albums redundant. First of several compilations of early work (most before 2001), this gives him the occasional break, which helps. A- [bc]
Omar Souleyman: Dabke 2020: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria (1999-2008 , Sublime Frequencies): More from the same albums and sessions, the problem less that the quality declines than that it all sounds so much the same that one's interest starts to wane. B+(***) [bc]
Omar Souleyman: Jazeera Nights: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria (1996-2009 , Sublime Frequencies): A third compilation, pretty upbeat. Not sure what the date breakdown is, as the later releases have later end-dates, but most songs appear to come from early albums. B+(***) [bc]
Spoonie Gee: The Godfather of Rap (1987, Tuff City): Rapper Gabe Jackson, from Harlem, early rapper, first single was "Spoonin Rap" in 1979, cut more singles for Sugar Hill, eventually came out with this his only album. Old school before it became old. B+(**)
Tinariwen: The Radio Tisdas Sessions (2000 , World Village): Tuareg group, formed over the 1980s in exile in Libya and Algeria, returned to Mali (where they recorded this), eventually leaving to tour the world (especially as Mali fell apart). First album, B+(**)
Tinariwen: Amassakoul (2004, World Village): Second album, into the studio. B+(***)
Aaron Tippin: Ultimate Aaron Tippin (1990-97 , RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage): Country singer-songwriter, established his working class bona fides with his debut single "You've Got to Stand for Something" ("or you'll fall for anything at all"). He cut five albums for RCA, turned into four best-ofs between 1997 and this 20-track CD in 2004, before he got more jingoistic after 9/11, fading after Stars & Stripes in 2002 (aside from a set of truck songs in 2009). Strong voice, solid songs, still I'm not sure they hold up as well now as I thought back then. B+(***)
Lobi Traoré: Ségou (1996, Cobalt): Singer-guitarist from Mali (1961-2010), third album, has a blues groove, and keeps it tight. B+(***) [yt]
Lobi Traoré: Rainy Season Blues (2009 , Glitterbeat): Acoustic guitar and vocals, about as basic as blues gets, except I don't understand the words, or feel the anguish. But maybe anguish isn't the point. B+(**)
Warren Vaché: Iridescence (1981, Concord): Retro-swing player, debut album 1976, cornet and flugelhorn here, quartet with Hank Jones (piano), George Duvivier (bass), and Alan Dawson (drums). B+(***)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week: