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What We’re Listening to This Week
Sonny Rollins: Without a Song, the 9/11 Concert (Milestone)
Few musicians have a more intimate relationship with Manhattan than Harlem-born Sonny Rollins, the greatest living sax player. None that I know of is more capable of giving musical expression to the anquish of the city and the futility of Bush’s revenge play. Four days after the attacks of 9/11, Sonny Rollins, who witnessed the towers fall, took his band to Boston, where the killer planes originated, and performed this set of improvisations, alternately chilling and comforting. If you had any doubt that music has the power to heal, this haunting and ultimately uplifiting performance should erase them.
Ray Davies: Other People’s Lives (V2 / ADA)
Former Kinks enfant terrible turns 60, gets shot in New Orleans, releases his version of Blood on the Tracks. All in all, not that bad of a year.
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Dreaming of the Masters, Thelonious S. Monk (DIW Records)
Cecil Taylor sits in with the kings of avant-garde improvision for an outlandlish tribute to their hero Monk, including the most bizarre cover of "’Round Midnight" you’re ever likely to encounter.
Don Cherry: Codona 3 (ECM)
Someone wrote me a tart note last week carping that my taste in music is conservative and archaic. So be it. I’m settling into my geezerhood. But if the trumpeter Don Cherry–who once enraged Miles Davis by playing an upside-down version of Davis’ "Walkin’" on a kazoo while Miles sat in the front row–were still alive he’d surely be amused to hear his surrealistic work, which veered from free jazz to exotic world beats, described as "toothless and demure".
Television: Marque Moon (Elektra)
Dave Marsh, who professes to know a lot more about music than I do, hates Television because Tom Verlaine once confessed that he tried to play guitar like Jerry Garcia, a tragic choice for a proto-punk band (perhaps any band). But I remain devoted, if only because of the song "Venus" with its great line: "I fell right into the arms … of Venus de Milo." And, actually, Dave, the guitar on "Marque Moon", the best song on this set, owes as much to Bob Marley (one of the most underrated guitarists in rock) as Garcia. By the way, Robert Mapplethorpe shot the cover photography for this album, in the calm before the storm.
Etta James: At Last! (MCA)
This was Etta James’s first and best album, where she revealed her mastery of soul, blues and jazz. Her subsequent recordings never really lived up to this achievement, though the fault lies more with Chess Records’ lax production than any erosion of Etta’s skills. Lena Horne made "Stormy Weather" a hit. But Etta James gave the song life and more than a scent of danger. James belts out a version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You", of such crushing power it seems capable of forcing even Norman Mailer into a posture of trembling submission.
We asked our friends on the production and editorial crew at the Socialist Worker to sit in with us this week. Here’s their playlist all the way from Sweet Home, Chicago.
Playlist from an SW production Monday
Velvet Underground: Live at Max’s Kansas City
Lou Reed sings "After Hours." That alone makes the album worth buying. In 2004, a new two-disc set came out that provides, among other things, two great versions of "Sweet Jane."
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet
Terminator X turns cuts into a symphony, accompanying rhymes like "It wasn’t you, but you pledge allegiance/To the red, white, and blue Sucker that stole the soul!" This album, released in 1989, was revolutionary hip hop twice over.
Ozomatli, Street Signs
The winning argument for a people’s globalization. Ozomatli write some of the best political/protest songs around, but on top of it is a dazzling collision of hip-hop, salsa, funk, jazz, crunchy rock guitars, Tejano, traces of Middle Eastern, reggae, even klezmer. Don’t miss them live. And also: Certified as rockin’ driving music by Daisy.
After two QPAtGAoATs (Quite Possibly Among the Great Albums of All Time) in a row, this double-disc live album was at first a mild disappointment to the Wilco fanatics among us, for being stingy with songs from the early albums and the band’s cover gems (Thunderclap Newman Lives!). But repeated listenings, at high volume–especially to disc two, where the most studio-trickery-filled songs from "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" become live showcases for the band’s awesome six-man lineup–won us over.
Loretta Lynn, The Definitive Collection
In addition to Loretta Lynn classics like "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and her duets with Conway Twitty, this is one of the few places you’ll get her 1975 song "The Pill." The song, about a woman’s newfound freedom thanks to birth control pills, was banned by several radio stations at the time. Here’s a sample: "I’m tired of all your crowing how you and your hens play/While holdin’ a couple in my arms another’s on the way/This chicken’s done for up her nest and ready to make a deal/And you can’t afford to turn it down ‘ cause you know I’ve got the pill."
It’s true–one crazy bluegrass band can cover Bill Monroe, Dusty Springfield, George Jones, Nick Lowe, ABBA and Johnny Paycheck and get by with it (not to mention their own great originals). Really.
English Beat, I Just Can’t Stop It
This 1980 album from the multiracial group of Birmingham punks who helped touch off the ska revival just excels in every respect–the catchy tunes, the dead-on politics and lots of energy. Every song is great, but you have to love "Stand Down Margaret," an anti-tribute to Ronnie Reagan’s idol.
OutKast, The Love Below and Speakerboxxx
I know that OutKast won an Album of the Year Grammy for this in 2004, but I keep coming back for the wide range of rhythms, sounds and genres on it. I like the cover of Coltrane’s "My Favorite Things," and I can’t get enough of "Take Off Your Cool," featuring Norah Jones.
Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town
The transition from youth rebellion to rust-belt chronicles. During the Boss’s 2005 solo tour, he reworked this LP’s "Promised Land" as statement of middle-aged defiance in the face of life’s disappointments.
The title doesn’t oversell this collection of the queen of salsa’s greatest hits, including great versions of Bemba Colora and Quimbara.
Ted Leo/ Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak
Listening to Hearts of Oak for the first time gave me that same great feeling you get when you find something that you didn’t realize you were missing in the first place. From its name-dropping tribute to the Specials’ 2-tone ska ("Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?") to its globe-trotting tour of war and imperialism ("Ballad of the Sin Eater") to its anti-sexist title-track, Leo manages to blend his sometimes falsetto voice and tightly wound pop-oriented punk with left-wing politics–without ever running into political treatise territory.
The Clash, From Here to Eternity Live
Bono’s alive while Joe Strummer’s dead. Where’s the justice in that? To drown my sorrows over that little mystery, I throw on this collection of live Clash performances spanning 1978-1982. Highlights include a sneering cover of the Bobby Fuller Four’s "I Fought the Law" and an electrifying version of "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais"–arguably the Clash’s best song–that kicks off with Strummer’s broken French translation of the title. But the best here is truly saved for last, with a down-tempo version of "Straight to Hell" that surpasses the original, particularly when Strummer switches gears mid-song to tell off-key fans to "Sing in tune, you bastards."
Neko Case, Blacklisted
This is alt-country with a dreamy, slightly sinister quality–think Twin Peaks crossed with Johnny Cash by way of Ennio Morricone. And from "Deep Red Bells," describing the aftermath of a serial killing, to "Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)," the offer to be a haven for a world-weary lover, Case sings it all with a voice that could melt an iceberg.