JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabate: In the Heart of the Moon (Nonesuch)
I’ve always thought of “World Music” as a phony and condescending genre invented by marketing reps for record labels looking for new ways to rip off the poorest of artists. But there’s no denying that Ali Farka Touré is a towering figure in the World Music scene. Touré, the John Lee Hooker of Mali, died last week. Born and raised in a kind of poverty that is beyond the imagination of most Americans, Touré rose from the riverfront slums of Mali to become one of the most influential electric guitarists since Hendrix. Touré came to the attention of most westerners after his Grammy-winning cd Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder. Of course, Cooder is always elevating his own status by inserting himself on records made by more skilled artists. So instead that record I recommend Touré’s most recent effort, a hypnotic collabortation with Toumani Diabate, the grandmaster of the kora–the 21-string gourd harp.
Archie Shepp: Attica Blues (Universal)
Tenor saxman Archie Shepp may be the most militant living musician, a true black radical, who has recorded some of the most aggressive and challenging jazz of our time. This album, Shepp’s immediate response to the Attica prison riots, was a change of pace of sorts, featuring lyrical blues-based improvisations and vocal chants. Note especially his haunting song “Tribute to Brother George Jackson,” which makes Dylan’s tribute to the slain black radical seem almost trivial.
Roy Hargrove: Habana (Polygram)
Trumpet prodigy sneaks into Havana, hooks up with Cuban jazz players, returns with tapes that result in one of the freshest Latin jazz albums in decades.
Lori McKenna: Bittertown (Signature)
Boston folkie sings songs of alienation, lust and despair. McKenna’s voice won’t win any awards (though it’s nowhere near as grating as Lucinda Williams’), but she has a dark sense of humor that reminds me of Kinky Friedman at his most understated. Then again perhaps she isn’t joking. Listen to “Bible Song” and get back to me.
Bob Marley: Live at the Roxy, Hollywood, California, May 26, 1976 (Island)
Last week, I posited that Bob Marley was one of rock music’s most underrated guitar-players, prompting a torrent of letters asking if I’d been writing under a cloud of ganga smoke. I beg the fifth on that, but offer this raucous (and reggae is so rarely raucous) recording as Exhibit A in the brief for Marley, guitarslinger.
Clarence “Frogman” Henry: Ain’t Got No Home (Chess)
One of the great and nearly forgotten New Orleans R&B artists, Frogman Henry, reared in the Algiers ghetto, mastered a form of piano blues with a rolling fluidity that rivals the best work of the Fat Man himself.
Robert Lockwood, Jr and the Three Aces: Steady Rollin’ Man (Delmark)
No one coming from the Delta to the Windy City packed a more profound blues pedigree than Robert Lockwood, Jr, stepson of Robert Johnson. But Lockwood proved no mere imitator. He may have learned guitar at the knee of his legendary stepfather, but his music is equally influenced by the recordings of jazz great Charlie Christian and Crescent City guitar whiz Lonnie Johnson, master of the one-string solo. It is that seamless confluence of raw Delta blues with the delicacy of electric jazz that gives Lockwood’s music, often recorded with Johnny Shines and Otis Spann, its distinction. A true titan of the Chicago blues.
Ray Davies: Other People’s Lives
The Kinks might never record as a band again, but their frontman is still writing witty, paranoid character sketches and story-songs. This isn’t merely his first album of new material in eight years; it’s his <i>best</i> album of new material in at least 22 years.
Bobby Bare: The Moon Was Blue
In the ’70s, Bobby “Drop Kick Me Jesus” Bare was the bridge between the outlaws and the country mainstream. Now, like Davies, he’s just put out his first CD in ages. It isn’t as good as Ray’s, but it’s solid stuff; and I’m a sucker for any version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.”
Marianne Faithful: Broken English
Like I said: I’m a sucker for any version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.”
Various Artists: Soul Fire: The Majestic Collection
At the turn of the century, Philip Lehman’s short-lived Soul Fire label hearkened back to the sounds of early ’70s funk, ’60s soul-jazz, blaxploitation soundtracks, and that Latin-soul fusion called boogaloo. This mostly instrumental anthology collects the impressive, infectious results.
Various Artists: Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records
Another indie label — the Chicago-based alt-country outfit Bloodshot — marked its fifth birthday in 2000 with this double-CD set. These songs were recorded specifically for the album, which means it includes a fair number of good-natured novelty throwaways: If you ever wanted to hear a quasi-country version of “Baba O’Reilly,” “Bring the Noise,” or “Highway to Hell,” this is the place to go. But there’s a lot of earnest performances here as well, including strong tracks by Moonshine Willy, the Texas Rubies, and — another rock cover — Alejandro Escovedo, who sings a stellar version of Mick Jagger’s “Evening Gown.”
Van Morrison: Pay the Devil
Van goes country.
Pere Ubu: Terminal Tower
It was the rust belt, not New York or London, that was the true cradle of punk. And it was Ohio, birthplace of Pere Ubu and Devo, that produced the most compellingly weird specimens of the genre. Especially Ubu, a band of ‘patarockers with a gift for songs that are atonal and hooky at the same time.
Jon Brown: 70 Years Coming
A septuagenarian custodian in New Jersey sings some old-fashioned blues songs, then producer Tom Rothrock mixes them into a Moby- or Burnside-style acid-blues dance record. It isn’t for purists, but what is?
I was at this concert, and damned lucky for it, too. Because Keith Richards has amulets and fish-hooks hanging out of his hair, this is ultimately a freer world.
Joni Mitchell: Dreamland
I have weeks where this album says everything that I’m thinking, and this is one of them. It’s so easy for me to understand how a girl could retreat into a sometimes world where nothing exists, except for her guitar, the piano and The Guy, because they’ve managed to soak up everything else that exists. The payoff can be amazing. Sometimes a girl’s greatest asset ain’t her diamonds, it’s her guitar, and that’s the real bling lies, which is inherently part of the beauty of Joni Mitchell. On this compilation of her greatest hits, Mitchell opts to ditch the original versions of three of her past hit tracks, and instead offers the trinity comprised of newer versions re-recorded during the present decade. The result is that these three songs manage to take on some new meanings and deeper resonance, with Mitchell’s now older, reflective and more experienced voice having been around the tracks (yes, pun intended) some time later. The result is haunting on these songs have been re-worked three decades later. And yes, I would love to be a “Free Man In Paris” about now, too. So if you’ve got tickets, call me.
Leon Russell: Stop All That Jazz
On “If I Were A Carpenter,” the hypothetical questions are asked, “Would you love me if I was a carpenter?” and ” If I was a rock star, make sweet love to me, would you be my groupie? Would you make sweet love to me? Come to California?” Those questions aren’t really the issue at the end of the day. Rather, it is whether or not you could love a man (whether he happens to be a rock star or a carpenter) who acts like he thinks he’s Jesus. So the down side is not really about whether he’s a carpenter or a rock star, rather it’s about his self-inflated stuff that sometimes seems to show its face, and that is the real dilemma that can make for a really rough ride. There’s a lot you can go through with someone, but if those are the kinds of issues you are going to have to contend with as far as any guy, it’s a chance this may not want to take. Leon hammers it out in his own unique style. Eleven more tracks on this disc that include a jazz tinged version of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” drag you away.
King’s X: Best Of King’s X
Featuring one of the most venerated hard rock singers, this King’s X greatest hits package, features the confessional rocker, “Over My Head,” with Dug Pinnick’s confessional vocals, in which he delves into his cathartic jam about being abused by the people who are supposed to be the most trusted to protect you, namely your own parents, and also, in his case, his grandmother, who raised and abused him, after his parents virtually abandoned him. The track was recorded at Woodstock II in 1994, yet again, another opportunity where you can find out that despite it all, you are stardust, you are golden. Pinnick tells the audience, “If you plan on having kids, make sure your kids know that you love them more than anything in the whole wide world. No matter who they are, no matter what they look like, what they do, what kind of rock and roll they listen to ’cause if you don’t, they’re going to grow up fucked upAnd I know what I’m talking aboutMusic, it’s over my head.” The best rock and roll is about truth and love, and spreading it around. Especially in a world where so much else of it has proven that it is incapable of doing so.
The Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
I can’t believe that it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary release of this album I’m listening to right now. Has it really been that long since the DK’s brought the noise? In the current age of prefab music and faux punk, when it comes to the San Francisco punk scene, this is still the genuine item. The retrofitted disc features Klaus Flouride on bass, East Bay Ray on guitar, their drummer, Ted, and the always entertaining and gifted Jello Biafra on vocals. Digitally remastered, this disc features the DKs kicking out eternal punk classics, such as “California Uber Alles” and “Holiday In Cambodia.” The Dead Kennedys were without question, among the most controversial/feared/hated recording artists of the 1980’s. Countless right-wing pressure groups, religious fanatics, neo-nazi skinheads, Republicans, and Democrats, like Tipper Gore got their knickers in a twist, and worked overtime ranting in the press, and behind close doors, trying to get this album thrown into the big bonfire. Tipper Gore even went on the Oprah Winfrey Show to attack Biafra, who was the undisputed centerpiece of the group. Quite literally, back then, this album was a political party, in itself. Yes, folks, this fourteen-song disc brings back lots of memories for this rocker chick. I think every wacko, crank group that was out to ban records (as they called these vinyl discs in those days) had this album’s ninth track, “I Kill Children,” listed in their top ten hit lists of discs they tried to pressure retailers to stop selling. After all that is over, now, in later years, it has been way past unfortunate, watching the rifts and the legal proceedings that have played out between the band’s former lead vocalist, the deeply political Jello Biafra, owner of Alternative Records, and the rest of the band. This feud had gotten to be almost as bad and sadly ironic as Yoko versus Paul. Well, almostbecause nothing else could get that distasteful. Noting the lyrics on this album, which was released just two years after the band’s debut, it is hard to believe these lyrics were written at a time when Schwartzeneger was not the governor. Going back to the attempts by right-wingers to squash the DKs, I had personally attended some of the court dates during the Frankenchrist album court trials, and I still explicitly remember the many highly orchestrated and torridly pathetic efforts that were calculated to destroy this band. Sadly and ironically, this original line-up imploded from the inside of the band. Thankfully, at least, no one could ever stop this album.
Phyllis Pollack lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.
Jimmy Cliff: Black Magic (Artemis)
Why isn’t Jimmy Cliff the biggest star in the world, rather than a cult figure? If the question has never occurred to you, it probably just means
you haven’t been exposed to enough of his music.
Unfortunately, the people who helped him make Black Magic appear to have been obsessed with the same question, and determined to give their hero a “star turn”. Or who knows, maybe it was all Cliff’s idea. As the words to one song put it, “You volunteer, you’re not just a victim”. Whatever the case, the project was dead in the water before it hit the stores.
Which may account for the fact that if you search for Black Magic on both
Amazon and iTunes, you will find the same title with two different covers,
two different song sequences, and what sounds like two different mixes.
On either version, you will encounter Cliff swimming upstream, with Sting
tied to one ankle, Annie Lennox to the other, and a host of other “helpers” waving harpoons. Whatever happened to letting a song breathe a little? It’s one thing to transcend roots, another to hack them to pieces. What I wouldn’t give to hear Cliff do this material with the band he used on my next selection.
Jimmy Cliff: In Concert: The Best of Jimmy Cliff (Reprise)
The reggae equivalent of James Brown and the Famous Flames Live at the Apollo, and one of the greatest live albums ever recorded in any genre. Visit his web site these days, and you’ll find Jimmy Cliff saying that he really sees himself primarily as an actor. Try not to think of that when you hear him sing “Many Rivers To Cross”.
Saint Louis Jimmy Oden, Complete Works, Vols. 1 and 2 (Document)
The composer of “Going Down Slow” (no, Willie Dixon didn’t write that tune, great as he was) doing his thing, which involves sly vocals and
death-defying piano. Saint Louis Jimmy was what it’s all about. He also
wrote “Can’t Stand Your Evil Ways”. In fact, if he were from New Orleans,
he’d be Saint Saint Louis Jimmy.
Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall: The Complete Concert (Koch)
Yes, it’s fun to hear a New York audience begging the Foggy Mountain Boys to play the Martha White Theme. But the sparks really fly when they break out “Let The Church Roll On”, possibly the most politically incorrect song ever performed (and to thunderous applause) at Carnegie.
Manitas de Plata: At Carnegie Hall (Vanguard)
With the great Jose Reyes adding vocals. What kind of world would let this recording go out of print?
Carlos Montoya: Flamenco (Tradition)
I met Montoya in the mid-60s, after a recital at Birmingham-Southern College. His performance was my first real exposure to the Shock and Awe of great flamenco guitar playing. After the show, he kindly let me carry his guitar to his car for him. If I had dropped it, I would have killed myself.
Alirio Diaz: Four Centuries of Spanish Guitar (Vanguard)
What kind of world would give you a hard time trying to find an album by
Alirio Diaz? The last time I saw the great Diaz, he was trying to bribe his
way onto an airplane in Belgrade. Actually, he had bought a seat for his
instrument, and the guitar had been bumped. This must have been 1979. I remember the look on his face when Pan-Am wanted to stow it in cargo.
Segovia: The Great Master (Deutsche Grammophon)
There was a time when every college student knew about Ingmar Bergman’s movies and Andres Segovia’s recordings. This was before people decided Clapton was God.
The Tallis Scholars, Tallis: Spem in Alium (Gimell)
A nice little choral exercise in 40-part harmony.
Sviatoslav Richter, Brahms: Concerto No.2/Beethoven: Sonata No.23 (RCA)
An indispensable American album by the great self-taught Russian pianist who, by all accounts, disliked not only America but this recording and, not least, himself.
David Vest’s newest CD is Serves Me Right to Shuffle.