What We’re Listening to This Week
Jeffrey St. Clair
1. Miles Davis–Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud–Soundtrack (Polygram)
Louis Malle’s first feature, Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), a tense little film noir shot on a tight budget, has just been re-released by Rialto in a gorgeous new print. A pouty-lipped Jeanne Moreau is stunning in this nihilistic thriller involving arms dealers, oil companies, adulterers and bored Parisian youth, but the real star of the movie is the soundtrack by Miles Davis, recorded one night in 1956 following an afternoon spent at a Left Bank café with Jean-Paul Sartre talking about jazz, women and philosophy in, as Miles put it in his autobiography, "broken English, broken French and sign language." As Malle projected the film on a scene in the studio, Miles improvised the haunting score in a single, all night session. The end result ranks with Sketches of Spain, In a Silent Way and Kind of Blue as one of Davis’s landmark achievements and perhaps the greatest soundtrack ever–at least until 30 years later when Davis teamed up with John Lee Hooker to score Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot.
2. The Five Royales–The Apollo Sessions (Collectibles)
With Lowman Pauling on a stinging lead guitar and Johnny Tanner belting out the street-hardened lead vocals, the Five Royales were the great black rock/R&B band of the 1950s. Their harmonies are impeccable; their rock numbers explode in a controlled frenzy. Nearly forgotten today, the Five Royales influence can be heard from the young James Brown to the Beatles and Sly Stone. But why waste time charting their influences? Nothing tops the original sound.
3. Faron Young–Live Fast Love Hard: the Capitol Recordings, 1952-1962 (Country Music Foundation)
Shreveport’s Faron Young idolized Hank Williams. The legend goes that Young, a fixture on Louisiana Hayride, took his fiance to meet Williams in a local bar, Williams relieved Young of his girlfriend at the point of a gun. Young’s early records for Capitol are ferocious blend of Williams inspired honky tonk and Cajun-country hillbilly swing. In the early 60s, Willie Nelson convinced Young to record his song "Hello Walls", which became a huge cross-over hit. After that hit, Young’s music gradually degenerated into the insipid country pop that was then in vogue. The hits kept coming, but the music never had the same zest. Still Faron Young remained one of the godfathers of Nashville, publishing the influential Music City News and, to his credit, he cultivated a stable of creative young songwriters, including Nelson, Don Gibson, and Kris Kristofferson. His career was sent into a minor tailspin after he yanked a talkative young girl from the audience and spanking her onstage. Years of drinking and smoking also caught up with him and he put a bullet in his head in the summer of 1996. Back in the day, though, Faron Young stormed across the stages of the Southland like the Johnny Rotten of honky tonk.
4. Sonny Clark–Cool Struttin': Remastered (Blue Note)
So many great young jazz players of the late 1950s and 1960s died young, leaving a huge void — Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, Eric Dolphy, Lee Morgan–just to name a few of my favorites. Near the top of this list is Sonny Clark, one of the most talented of the hard bop piano players, who died of a heroin overdose at 31. His playing here, backed by Miles Davis’s rhythm section, is bluesy, melodic and deeply grooved. Almost danceable, which is saying a lot for post-bebop jazz. If Ray Charles had played jazz full time, he might have sounded a lot like Sonny Clark on this record, probably the greatest hard bop album. Like him, but certainly not any better.
5. Rodney Crowell–Fate’s Right Hand (Sony)
The most gifted singer/songwriter since Guy Clark delivers a knockout blow to the forces of darkness, then dances on their remains. This one’s for you Pat Robertson.
6. Skip James–Studio Sessions: Rare and Unreleased. (Vanguard)
The Mississippi blues springs from three great fountainheads: Charley Patton, Son House and Skip James. And the greatest of these is Mr. James. He’s also the most underappreciated and has been slandered in a disgusting biography by Stephen Calt. James excelled as a piano player, guitarist and a songwriter. But it’s his voice that haunts, a high falsetto that’s as sharp and deadly as concertina wire. There’s a lot of terrific gospel on this cd. Some of the songs more frightening than any Cotton Mather sermon. An enterprising hacker should find a way to download "Somebody Gonna Wish They Had Religion" onto Dick Cheney’s iPod.
7. Dion–Yo Frankie (Arista)
The career of Dion DiMucci encapsulates the best of white rock and roll, from the Bronx doo-wop of The Wanderer and Run Around Sue to protest songs, such as Abraham, Martin and John. Dion, a grossly under-rated songwriter and band leader, escaped the clutches of heroin and a string of bad producers, ventured into folk and gospel and emerged in 1993 with this stunning album of hard-driving rock, backed by Lou Reed and Dave Edmunds. When he sings "King of the New York Streets", you believe it.
8. Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon–See There (Black Top)
Bourbon Street legends Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon are a husband and wife team who specialize in high-powered Creole funk. Fran began her career in the late 1950s as the singer in Guitar Slim’s band. Her deep powerful voice was the perfect compliment to his delicate guitar playing. Fran perfected a kind of swamp soul, a female Slim Harpo. She spent most of the 60s and 70s without a recording contract, playing In the eighties, she married Hollimon, one of New Orleans’ top session guitarists, they’ve produced four excellent albums, none better than this one. Any time you feel the need to inject yourself with the real spirit of New Orleans, put on this record and then put on your dancing shoes.
9. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan–Ask Rufus (MCA)
As the 70s eroded into the 80s, there were two black women singers who towered above all others: Donna Summer and Chaka Khan. Summer’s voice, orgiastic, airy and precise, was the perfect compliment to the disco beats of Georgio Moroder. But Summer’s sound, sexy as it was, seemed to derive from Sunday nights in the gospel choirs. Khan’s vocals burst forth from more secular precincts. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, growing up in the sexually repressed suburbs of the Corn Belt, Chaka Khan was the sine qua non of sex appeal–the big, rough voice, the electrified hair, the infectious personality. Here, fronting her great funk band Rufus, she is at the height of her considerable powers. Listening to Chaka Khan sing "At Midnight I Will Lift You Up" is like spending 3:57 minutes in one of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone boxes, when it was working as advertised. Don’t resist; just submit.
10. The Kinks–Low Budget Remastered (Velvel)
The Kinks were always the Brit band from the 60s I most wanted to like. Looking back, they never quite lived up to my expectations. Perhaps it was that long string of concept albums, from Village Green to Soap Opera, which come off as being far too fey. Worse, they opened the door for the dreadful tide of pwog rock in the 1970s. That said, the worst of the Kinks’ comic rock operas are so much better and more fun than The Who’s twin travesties, Tommy and Quadrophenia. Low Budget, marketed in the 70s as a comeback album, strikes me as the Kinks’ best outing. It rocks hard; it’s funny; and it’s politically charged without being dogmatic. And the songs National Health and A Gallon of Gas haven’t lost a fraction of relevance … natch.
By the time Jeffrey St. Clair was 18, he’d been 86’d from more bands than Dickey Betts. Complaints can be registered to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Nomadi — 40 (Wea)
This week I checked out the CD that ranked dead last (as of this past Monday) on Amazon’s sales charts, coming in at #719,724, and compared it to the top twenty-five sellers. Guess who won. Nomadi, not altogether surprisingly, sound far better than most of what the market would call the "best." Amazon doesn’t have sound samples posted, naturally, but you can hear Nomadi on iTunes. I recommend "Le Strade" for openers.
2. Liberace — The Golden Age of Television, (The Liberace Foundation)
A long-before-Las-Vegas reminder that, once upon a time, the guy could play the piano. Check out "Take me Out To The Ball Game" on vol. 5 (iTunes), bearing in mind that expecting Lee to swing is like expecting Kerry to fight back when Bush attacks him.
3. Charles Brown, Eddie Bo, Willie Tee and Art Neville, Keys to the Crescent City (Rounder)
Willie Tee’s "In the Beginning" and Art Neville’s "My Children" are solo New Orleans blues piano playing at its finest. Enough to give you religion. And to make you wish Art would give us a new solo CD.
4. Saul Williams — Saul Williams (Fader)
A trippy, anti-pop-hop album by the guy who is to most top-40 rap what John Trudell is to guys dressing up like 40s gangsters and calling themselves bluesmen.
5. John Trudell — Bone Days (Daemon)
Never mind those "country" singers in cute black hats and Peterman coats. This is the antidote to much of what passes for "singing" these days. Think of it next time you hear Celine Dion yelling over the supermarket speakers.
6. Leonard Peltier, Harvey Arden, Rev. Goat Carson, New Orleans Light — My Life is My Sun Dance (CD Baby)
Harvey Arden speaks Peltier’s words, with music by the sublime Rev. Goat Carson and a band of brothers from New Orleans.
7. Francis Cabrel — Samedi Soir Sur La Terre (Sony Intl)
Cabrel’s 1994 masterpiece, before he started dabbling in blues. As good-sounding a French pop album as I’ve come across. The CD’s digipack deserves some sort of design award, too, for suggesting that making music could be some kind of civilized activity or something.
8. Crescent City Gold — The Ultimate Session (Highstreet)
Allen Toussaint on piano, Dr. John on guitar (mainly), Lee Allen and Alvin Tyler on sax, and the great Earl Palmer on drums. All you need to know. Singing "even the champs go down sometime, baby."
9. Ronnie Barron — My New Orleans Soul (Aim)
No disrespect at all to the ubiquitous Jon Cleary, but THIS is the New Orleans piano player people should have been listening to all these years. Barron was originally slated to be "Doctor John" before deferring to Mac Rebennack, who assumed the mantle and never looked back. If you can find Barron’s version of "Life Is Just A Struggle Everyday," sadly not included here, by all means grab it.
10. Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Original Indie-Label 1944-1961
They’re all here: Sammy Price, the Gay Poppers, Cousin Joe, Pete Johnson, the X-Rays, the Ravens and many more. You even get a chance to hear Wilbert Harrison sing something besides "Kansas City" for once. Can’t help mentioning that Amazon is selling this set for $36 ($31 used) while iTunes wants $83.16.
David Vest’s newest CD is Serves Me Right to Shuffle.
1. Louis Armstrong: The Best of the Hot 5 & Hot 7 Recordings
I don’t really buy that hooey about playing classical music for your baby so she’ll grow up smart — but just in case there’s something to it, I figure my daughter will really come out all right if I play her a lot of Louis Armstrong.
2. Hank Penny: King of Hillbilly Bebop
Western blues, Alabama swing, and a little mountain bop.
3. Candi Staton: Candi Staton
Staton was one of the best southern soul singers of the ’60s and early ’70s, before veering suddenly into disco and then returning to her gospel roots. This disc is a terrific sampler of that first stage of her pop career. Credit where it’s due: It was Staton’s then-husband, Clarence Carter, who had the inspired idea to back up "Stand By Your Man" with a riff from "Stand By Me."
4. Solomon Burke: Proud Mary: the Bell Sessions.
Another great southern soul album. Get the CD with the bonus tracks, so you can hear his take on George Jones’ "She Thinks I Still Care."
5. Merle Haggard: Haggard Like Never Before
I like the new Chicago Wind too, but this two-year-old disc is even better. The righteous and paranoid "Lonesome Day" may be his best political song ever.
6. The Ohio Players: Fire
The ballads are a mixed bag, but the hard funk is sensational. Is it just me, or does one of these guys sound like a muppet?
7. The Buzzrats: A Tiny Speck In A Ruthless …
A little bit folky, a little bit punk. Like someone put Rust Never Sleeps in a blender with Harvest.
8. Elvis Presley: From Elvis in Memphis
His real comeback, and one of the greatest country-soul albums ever recorded. His cover of "I’m Movin’ On" somehow manages to echo both Hank Snow’s and Ray Charles’ versions of the song.
9. Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle.
"Nowadays them country boys
don’t cotton much to one two three four."