Books of lists are a blast. I love them, despise them. Usually they call things to one's attention that may not have been realized, and they also have me tearing my hair out, wondering, "How did they miss that? Why did they include that?"
Robert Dimery is the general editor of the massive 1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die (Universe Books, 2010), which includes a lengthy supplement, And 10,001 You Must Download, making for several evenings of fun--and frustration. It's a rock'n'roll-as-continuum chronicle, spanning pre-rock recordings by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Robert Johnson (although Charley Patton is notably absent), running through James Carr in the 1960s, the Smiths in the 1980s and squeezing in Gil Scott-Heron's comeback of 2010. The best of it is stunning, with short essays and remarkable pictures (I'd never seen the shot of Sam Cooke with an acoustic guitar and cigarette drooping from his mouth); it has a decidedly British point of view, revering American roots rock while including early U.K. rockers Cliff Richard and Billy Fury. The stories are impressively researched, except for when one writer calls the Kingsmen "a Seattle band" (that would be Portland, three hours to the south).
The 950+ page book mixes international artists (Serge Gainsbourg, Esma Redzepova) with lots of items I've never heard: The Preachers' "Who Do You Love," for example. On the one hand, you're happy that 1,001 Songs includes brilliant choices like the Small Faces' "Tin Soldier" or Billie Holiday's disturbing "Strange Fruit." Because it's the work of several critics, a wide range of music from groundbreaking to crassly commercial is intermingled beautifully.
On the other hand, one has to wonder why only two tracks (one in the book's main body, one in the appendix) from Buffalo Springsfield's strong catalog ("For What It's Worth," "Rock'n'Roll Woman") merit inclusion while the band Kiss is represented 17 times. Huh? There's also the recommendation to download the Beach Boys' laughable cover of "Rock'n'Roll Music" (perhaps to let us know what can happen?). Thankfully, a lot of those poor choices are relegated to the And 10,0001 You Must Download section, which unfortunately alphabetizes artists by their first names. Surely the editor had control over how part two is alphabetized; for this blog, I do not have that power.
It's good, it's stupid, it's stimulating. If you haven't already, check out 1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die.
Willie May--Nights of Luna (self-release): Scruffy, strong-headed stuff from the
Buffalo bluesman, who has released no less than ten albums over the years. Hot harmonica and songs both topical ("Plenty of Problems") and leering ("Frog Legs")
put Nights of Luna ahead of many of the albums I've heard this year from bigger names
Johnny J. Blair--I Like the Street (Wampus Multimedia): Impressive on so many levels.
There's a whole range of emotion here, moving from joyous to dark and, well, street-like. I'm drawn to the rock stuff like "If I Could Dress Like Clive Owen" and "Love That's Here to Stay," where influences ranging from glam to roots rock add an important punch to Blair's always-strong lyrics. On the latter song, the line, "evil cannot stand alone in the blaze of a glorious light" shows how well he integrates two vastly different corners of the heart. So far, my favorite is "It's In Your Hands + Variations on Satie," with the second part of the track being composer Erik Satie's "Gnossienne." But
rather than merely tacking a slice of Satie to the end of the piece (as Blood, Sweat & Tears did in 1969), Blair writes his own song around the haunting moods of what
Satie has established, and it's a beautifully realized fusion. And speaking of one
element illuminating another, that's what I Like the Street does from start to finish (johnnyjblair.com).
Josh T. Pearson--Last of the Country Gentlemen (Mute): Pearson's first record since fronting the Texas band Lift to Experience ten years back, Last of the Country Gentlemen is a batch of eerie, lengthy, sometimes self-important, songs full of pain and doubt. For some, he recalls the lovely, trance-like work of Tim or Jeff Buckley. For this mode of expression, I prefer Nick Drake to any of them. Besides, the one titled "Honeymoon's Great! Wish You Were Her" might pack more weight had not T Bone Burnett and Bono teamed to write something similar ("Having a Lovely Time, Wish You Were Her") nearly thirty years ago.
Mandy Barnett--Winter Wonderland (Rounder): Sweet stuff to play during your holiday get-togethers, with Barnett's singing and the instrumentation recalling 1960s Nashville.
On the title track, she's a dead ringer for Patsy Cline. Overall, though, this is disappointing, because it ends with a series of yuletide songs that are over-represented (particularly on country Christmas albums) and Barnett's accomplished vocals, while not stiff, are rather formal.
Keb' Mo'--Shoppin' on Christmas Eve (Rykodisc single): The procrastinator!
A Blast from the Past...
The dBs and friends--Christmas Time Again (Collectors' Choice): First issued in 1985 as Christmas Time, this amazing collection of pop-influenced rock has been overhauled and expanded twice, most recently in 2006. Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple's strong, melodic ethic spills over into practically all of the 21 titles, and Big Star's wonderful "Jesus Christ" (recorded 1975) is still included. Even Alex Chilton's "The Christmas Song," wobbly vocal and all, holds up, thanks to his underrated guitar playing and intimate performance. Christmas Time Again highlights include the dBs' "Holiday Spirit" ("gimmegimmegimmegimmegimme!"), Don Dixon's soulful "I Saw Three Ships" and Marshall Crenshaw's take on the Orioles' seminal "Lonely Christmas." Get out your hanky for Wes Lachot's sad and dreamy "Christmas Is the Only Time," full of Brian Wilson-ish, magnificent chords and harmonies in its attempt to bring back something that has long passed; "I don't know if I miss you/or I miss the memory," Lachot laments. A classic.
The Best of Kay Kay and the Rays (Catfood Records): Well-played, savvy modern blues by the band from Odessa, Texas. Kay Kay Greenwade's big voice plays off the Rays' fervent support with humor and intelligence--this is some of the best socio-political blues I've heard since the late Willie King. Best Of covers three albums, dating back to 2001, and the songs are every bit as good as their titles: "No Mama's Boys," "Stop the Killing," "Lone Star Justice." Socially, the band is so aware: On the sad and hilarious "Enron Field," Kay Kay has the perfect commentary on the skunks who got away with billions of dollars in deceit: "It's just white collar crime/Even if they convict you, you do country club time." Add in a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Crossfire" to complete the picture, and you'd be happy to wake up to a copy of The Best of Kay Kay and the Rays under your Christmas tree.
Rockpile--Live at Montreux, 1980 (Eagle): Better late than never for the first official live set from Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams. Although there's but one song from Rockpile's lone studio album (1980's Seconds of Pleasure) and the sound quality is hardly top drawer, the live takes on material from Edmunds' and Lowe's solo albums sparkle with energy and drive. Rockpile's roots-based rock'n'roll moves from "So It Goes" to "I Knew the Bride" and "Queen Of Hearts" to Jerry Lee Lewis' "Let's Talk About Us" with breathless abandon. Lowe's "They Called It Rock" is still an uproarious extended quip about the music biz: "The drummer is a bookie/The singer is a whore/The bass player's selling clothes he never should have worn." Edmunds' and Bremner's razor-sharp guitar interplay on "Switchboard Susan" makes it obvious that Lowe's Labour of Lust version wasn't built on studio effects--these guys can play like the dickens, with Williams in particular romping through every drum pattern with scintillating speed and precision. It's no wonder that Rockpile was kicked off many a tour for upstaging the lethargic bands for which they opened. Don't miss Live at Montreux, 1980.
Carole King--A Holiday Carole (Hear Music): Her first record in ten years, King walks the line between joyous and quietly accomplished and mediocre. A Holiday Carole's best tracks are more than enough, but it's disappointing that there's no new material by one of the greatest songwriters of all-time. Thankfully, King's daughter, Louie Goffin, is the album producer and wrote the handful of originals. "Chanukah Prayer" is especially moving, and the cover of "Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday" reminds us of King's connection to 1960s R&B. I could do without overworked tunes like "Sleigh Ride" (a big thanks to King for not recording the lame "Silver Bells," however), and yet there are genuine moments of Carole King's organic, vulnerable sound we've long loved as well.
A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge): Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward's third album is an uneven holiday set that's terrific if you're a She fan, but there's less interaction with He than I'd hoped. That might be because Ward mainly concentrates on overdubs of skeletal guitar in the tradition of Les Paul; my faves are where She & Him cross paths vocally. "Baby It's Cold Outside" is rushed (as most versions are), but it's an interesting version as Deschanel sings the opposite part of song than in her duet with Leon Redbone from the Elf soundtrack. They've covered NRBQ before, and this time it's "Christmas Wish," which lends a welcome goofiness to the project. A Very She & Him Christmas is pleasant, though not much more than that.
Two giants, so underappreciated, have passed this week. Unless you were listening to R&B radio in the '60s, you don't know Howard Tate and what a shame. Long unfamiliar with Tate, I knew the vocalist's songs via Janis Joplin ("Get It While You Can"), Ry Cooder ("Look at Granny Run, Run"), B.B. King ("Ain't Nobody Home") and Jimi Hendrix/Buddy Miles/Billy Cox as Band of Gypsys ("Stop"). Tate, born in Macon, GA in 1939 and then moving to Philadelphia at age seven, was stately yet thrilling sounding, with a beautiful sound born in the church and versed in the blues.
Over the summer, we happened to drop in to a store in Tacoma that we'd visited years ago, and they had scores of one dollar CDs. Was I excited, because I finally found Howard Tate's Rediscovered (Private Music, 2003), where he was reunited with producer-songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, who died earlier this year.
It's an amazing record, as Tate sings with gospel fervor and restraint (he was a minister in New Jersey) over some decidedly secular and bluesy themes, most of them written by Ragovoy: The wise "Mama Was Right," "Don't Compromise Yourself," a Ragovoy-Elvis Costello collaboration titled "Either Side of the Same Town," and the funny-as-can-be "She May Be White (But She Be Funky)." There's also a terrific cover of Prince's "Kiss" (I've long thought that a band like the Fabulous Thunderbirds could do a great blues-rock version of "Kiss"). Rediscovered ends with a new version of "Get It While You Can," yet instead of trying to outdo his 1967 original, Tate vocalizes over Ragovoy's spare piano accompaniment, and it's so moving. Especially because we'll never hear an album like Rediscovered again, or an artist like Howard Tate.
Guitarist Hubert Sumlin (born 1931, Greenwood, Mississippi) made several albums in the past decade but is best known for his work on some of Howlin' Wolf's greatest recordings. He played with a sharp, muscular flair on way too many Chicago Blues classics to list here, but a few of them really got me as I was discovering roots rock music in my teens: "Spoonful" (1960), 1964's "Killing Floor" (which Led Zeppelin swiped and turned into "The Lemon Song"), and the riotous "Wang Dang Doodle" from 1960.
Even on a Wolf track where his guitar is not prominent, like 1957's "Sitting On Top of the World" (because drummer Earl Phillips' beat is so big), Sumlin's tough chording lets one know what the Rolling Stones would be doing several years later. Get out your Howlin' Wolf box set--or get one--and go to town with Hubert Sumlin's fantastic guitar playing, outstanding as far as solos or ensemble musicianship.
The music world will really miss Howard Tate and Hubert Sumlin.
I sure have neglecting my blogging, as I put in a lot of time training, etc. last week for my new library job. Our local system (Timberland Regional Library) seems to be a really well-run collection of 28 branches, and my group (six new employees) spent time touring the service center, where we got an idea of how everything works. The art and design departments--which include the library's own printing press for small promotional jobs--were especially interesting to me. And the processing center, where new materials are prepared for distribution, was a hotbed of activity, too. Check it out:
Who knows--maybe there's a career here. I certainly feel good about it. Lots better than
when I worked in a chain grocery store, although I continue to apply at those places until I can get close to 40 hours of work per week.
Contrast the secure feeling of being in a library with a sign Gina and I noticed in a big time grocery store a few years ago. The sign was in the play area, where parents leave their young children with a careworker so they can shop. That day, a hastily written message read: "Play area closed today due to an accident."