Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #548:
Bessie Smith – Complete Recorded Works 1922-23
The real primo Bessie Smith albums are not available digitally: they’re double-vinyl reissues from the 60s and 70s, a series with faux-antique trellis edging the album covers in various colors, still frequently found in used record stores. If you see one, pick it up, because pretty much everything the Queen of the Blues ever did is worth owning. We suggest this double-cd reissue because it has a mix of her most iconic songs, i.e. Down Hearted Blues, Bleeding Hearted Blues and ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do, some of her famously suggestive stuff like Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine and also a whole bunch of her creepiest sides. It doesn’t have Sing Sing Blues, but it does have Sam Jones’ Blues, the chillingly surreal Graveyard Dream Blues, Cemetery Blues, Frosty Morning Blues, Haunted House Blues and the absolutely awesome Hateful Blues. There’s cleverly funny stuff like Eavesdropper’s Blues and topical songs like the escaped-slave allegory Ticket Agent, Ease Your Window Down and for the country crowd, Boweavil Blues. Most of the songs are just piano and vocals, some with the guy who was arguably the greatest blues pianist ever, James P. Johnson. No Louis Armstrong duets here – while it’s quaint to imagine him smoking her up, her strongest songs were always her darkest ones. If you don’t already know her, this will hook you for life. Here’s a random torrent via Dirty Music.
Friday night at Prospect Park, the monsoon lasted for about fifteen minutes. Then, almost magically, the sun came out and shortly thereafter Lebanese-American multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba and his ensemble – cello, violin, upright bass and drums – took the stage and turned it into a Wonderful Land. That’s the title of Saba’s latest album, and it’s an understatement. Saba’s sweeping, sometimes dreamy, sometimes majestic compositions span the entirety of the Middle East as well as Europe, exemplified by the eclectic Waltz for My Father, which began with a gently swaying baroque-tinged Bach-like theme based on a Russian folk melody and then shifted abruptly but gracefully to the desert. The opening mini-suite, Nirvana, followed a similar course. Saba welcomed the slowly growing crowd with a casually meandering oud taqsim before signaling the group to join him for a warily joyous levantine dance. Throughout the show, Saba would switch instruments mid-song, just as he did here, the piece’s windswept melody afloat on his bittersweet flute lines. This was soul music in Middle Eastern modes.
Another flute tune, Breeze from the South, Saba told the crowd, was meant to evoke a specifically Lebanese ambience, “Like from New Jersey to New York,” he grinned. He opened a traditional Lebanese folk melody with a long improvisation, drummer April Centrone eventually adding a stately bounce on daf frame drum. Saba switched to the jangly, overtone-rich Turkish saz lute for the album’s title track, a hypnotic feast of jangle and clang over pedaled bass, a tricky hypnotic rhythm and a mysteriously swirling cymbal solo by Centrone (whose ability to get a standard rock drum kit to sound like an entire Middle Eastern percussion ensemble was absolutely stunning – her elegant solo toward the end of the show drew the loudest applause of the entire set). They closed with a slinky Egyptian piece with a vintage 1940s ambience, violinist Megan Gould joining in tandem with Saba before reaching ecstatically for the night sky and taking the show out on a high note over the hypnotic bounce and rumble of the drums. And if the cello had been higher in the sound mix – it was practically inaudible beyond the front rows – it would have taken the blend of instruments up yet another notch. Saba leads the exhilarating New York Arabic Orchestra at Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center on Friday, August 5 at 7:30 PM.
Malian chanteuse and hoteliere Oumou Sangare and her band headlined. Sangare is an important figure there, a powerful lyricist whose fearlessly feminist stance has won her a global following. To an American audience unfamiliar with the languages she sings in, that aspect of her music is unfortunately lost. Behind her, the band launched into an endless series of grooves that touched on soukous and Afrobeat in places, while exploring themes from both the north and the south of her home country, the south being her home turf, one of the reasons why her music has little in common with the dusky, hypnotic desert blues for which Mali is best known. With the ping of the kora (West African harp), the clang of a Gibson SG guitar, snappy, trebly, fusionesque electric bass, drums and djembe, the group shifted quickly from one song to the next. After awhile, the tunes blended together to the point where it was hard to keep track where they’d been. Which seemed to be intentional. This was a dance party, Sangare leading the way with her charismatic presence and powerful, frequently dramatic alto voice.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #549:
Genesis – Nursery Cryme
While the veteran British art-rockers’ legacy suffers under the weight of a lot of lousy material from the Phil Collins years and then the 80s, up through the mid-70s they were a sensationally good, theatrical, guitar-and-keyboard-driven symphonic rock machine. This 1971 album may be the best of the bunch, although everything else they did while Peter Gabriel was in the band is worth hearing. Trippy, surreal and often macabre, it’s got many of the band’s best-loved epics: The Musical Box, a metaphorically-charged suite; The Return of the Giant Hogweed, which reminds that in the end, nature always wins; the bizarre, mythological Fountain of Salmacis; the wistful folk-rock vignette For Absent Friends, and Harold the Barrel, one of the weirdest, creepiest three-minute songs ever written. Gabriel imbues it all with a defiant, literate individualism, much as Roger Waters did in Pink Floyd. Here’s a random torrent.
Bad Luck is free jazz at its best, the Seattle duo of Christopher Icasiano on drums and glockenspiel and Neil Welch on saxophones, bass clarinet and singing bowls, playing through what’s sometimes a maze of loops and effects. Their new album, simply titled Two, is a sprawling double-disc set. The first, titled Bats (as in completely batty, maybe?), is pure improvisation; the second, Josephine, an intriguing mix of compositions and inspired jamming. It’s amazing how interesting all this is, especially since much of the instrumentation is limited to just sax and drums. And as much as this often goes way out on a limb, it’s also very tight. When free jazz is good, it tends to be because of the interplay and chemistry between the musicians, and while that’s a factor here, this album is more about carrying out assigned roles. Typically, this means Welch as bad cop and Icasiano as the opposite, but not always.
Bats is assaultive right off the bat, with noxious blasts of tenor sax exhaust over endless machine-gun drum volleys. Culled from a marathon six-hour studio session, it seems to be a theme and variations, simple ones that bludgeon the listener – ugly as much of this is, it’s blissfully adrenalizing. And Icasiano isn’t merely playing rolls around the kit – he came into this with a plan. Midway through, he locks in with the sax (foreshadowing what’s to come on the second disc), then methodically bludgeons his way through Olympic leapfrogging sprints and a couple of lethal hailstorms. Meanwhile, Welch blares and blasts, often working octave motifs bar after anguished bar. Finally, on the sixth segment, he finds some peace, launching into a cheery blues riff that he runs over and over while Icasiano muffles his full-throttle enthusiasm. And then he goes for a full-bore surf rumble as Welch takes his time rising to meet the wave. The concluding track, playfully titled Lure, has Welch establishing something approximating a melody over Icasiano’s casually stampeding attack.
The suite on the second cd is a masterpiece of aggressively creepy noir jazz. If Josephine is to be taken at face value, she’s a complicated girl, going from lively to practically comatose to extremely agitated, generally when least expected. It opens with a ghostly, spacious, skeletal glockenspiel piece and then the menacing Friends or Foe. Welch sets the stage with a macabre sax loop, drums moving slowly upward with a murderous deliberateness, evil insistent foghorn sax eventually taking the foreground. The title track initially follows as a contrast, sparsely atmospheric sax lines woven together, expanding to a catchy, staggeringly funky hook, Icasiano picking up the rhythm and running with it. From there they go up, and down, and back again. It’s quite a ride.
The two lock together on the next cut with a jaunty bass clarinet hook, a haze of overtones lingering in the background. True North is all wariness and suspense, with a hint of a fanfare, a deliciously slow crescendo as the drums prowl their way in from the outskirts, only to be sent back out again as Welch goes rippling and thoughtful with a few screams and sputters. The cheeriest thing here is aptly titled Menagerie; they follow that with a somber piece simply titled Singing Bowl that builds to a dirge, then to absolute terror, the sax screaming into the abyss for help. The final cut, Architect revisits the Friend or Foe theme, juxtaposing morbid, stately rhythm against more of Welch’s anguished sax, finally winding down with an elegant, simple drum outro straight out of Joy Division. You like intense? Check out this album. It’s out now on adventurous Seattle label Table and Chairs Music.
If you like psychedelic rock, you may already know about this: if not, you’re in for a treat. Beaulieu Porch’s debut single, The Colour 55 is lush, dreamy, mellotron-fueled psychedelic chamber pop created by Salisbury, UK one-man band Simon Berry. It’s everything that’s good about this style of music: crescendoing verse, catchy chorus, soaring string section, gracefully meandering lead guitar. Don’t walk away, Renee, go to the Peppermint Hill bandcamp page where you can get this practically six-minute gem on 7″ vinyl or as a download.
The B-side, Navy Blue, is just as good. Opening with wickedly catchy, distantly ominous acoustic guitar and echoey synth, it goes a little late-Beatlesque with some deliciously creepy funeral organ. In case you might be interested, the folks who put this out also released the Smiles and Frowns’ fantastic psychedelic debut album last year.
If you like 80s music, jazz, and/or watery guitar with the occasional touch of twang and reverb, this is for you. The Mattson 2’s latest album Feeling Hands blends elements of 80s Britpop, classic jazz guitar and surf music into a coolly energetic instrumental rock style that’s uniquely their own. Guitarist/bassist Jared Mattson sometimes evokes the frenetic, jazzy virtuosity of Paul Cavanagh, of 80s cult heros The Room; drummer Jonathan Mattson shifts effortlessly from surf rumble to 80s bounce to more intricate, cerebral patterns.
The album opens with Pleasure Point, a twangy sci-fi instrumental that adds an 80s edge to classic Shadows-style surf. With its simple, catchy chorus-box guitar hooks, Black Rain wouldn’t be out of place on a New Order album circa 1985. Ode to Lou (Lou Donaldson, maybe?) matches blithe Wes Montgomery-ish guitar to David Boyce’s fluttery but balmy tenor sax. They take a spacious, almost rubato Bill Frisell style noir Americana theme and follow it with a clangy variation that goes in a jazzy mid-80s Britpop direction… with a 70s soul string chart!
Mexican Synth is not particularly Mexican: it’s more like George Benson goes to Manchester. Guest Ray Barbee delivers a long, absolutely sensational, casually savage guitar solo on Chi Nine, Jared Mattson’s furious righthand attack shadowing him. When the strings come in, it’s something of a relief from all the wild intensity. Give Inski’s (what’s up with these titles, huh?) vamps on the opening chords of the Police’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: essentially, it’s a funk tune done in straight-up 4/4. There’s also the surf jazz number Obvious Crutch, judicious verse alternating with intense chorus, and Man from Anamnensis, opening with a minimalist, early 80s style new wave hook and builds from there, like the Mighty Lemon Drops gone to the Newport Festival. Fans of all the aforementioned artists ought to check this out. It’s out now from Galaxia.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #550:
Machito – Kenya
A landmark of latin big band jazz. Hard to believe, but this stuff was actually mainstream in 1957 when the album came out (one of Machito’s most popular albums was marketed as being recorded at the Catskills resort where he held an annual summer residency for years). On one hand, this doesn’t have the raw bite of his stuff from the 30s and 40s, but the songs and the charts are killer. All of these are originals save for percussionist Chano Pozo’s noir classic Tin Tin Deo. Lots of flavors here: the brisk, blazing guaguanco of Wild Jungle; the slinky, suspenseful Congo Mulence; the lush, majestic title track; the stop-and-start intenstiy of Oyeme; Holiday, with its surgically precise Cannonball Adderley solo; Cannonology, a sideways Charlie Parker tribute; the sinister-tinged Frenzy; proto-ska Conversation; bustling Minot Rama; hypnotically soulful Tururato, and Blues A La Machito, which is more Machito than blues. Here’s a random torrent via Hasta Luego Baby.
Darkly surreal and often quirkily charming, Rosler’s Recording Booth is one of the most original album concepts in recent months. Rosler’s narratives, sung by a diverse cast from the worlds of both music and theatre, trace what could be a day in the life of an Audiola or Voice-o-Graph, the lo-fi coin-operated recording booths of the 1940s and 50s where for as little as a quarter, you could make your own five-minute single. Rosler’s eclectic career has spanned the world of film music, choral music and jazz, including a 2010 collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, so it’s no surprise that the songs here bridge several styles. In keeping with the vintage concept, many of the tunes have an oldtimey feel: Lee Feldman’s similarly eclectic work comes to mind.
You’ve probably at least heard of the hit single, Doris From Rego Park, sung by Rosler himself – it’s a youtube sensation. For several years the late Doris Bauer was a frequent caller to Steve Somers’ postgame show on the New York Mets flagship station, WFAN. While there have been more articulate baseball fans, like all Mets fans in recent years, she suffered, her suffering made all the more obvious since she had respiratory problems that made it difficult for her to complete a sentence, and seem to have curtailed much of any hope for a social life. Rosler sings to her gently over a hypnotic, new wave pop-tinged keyboard lullaby, almost as one would to a child. As sympathetic a portrait as Rosler paints, it evokes a crushing loneliness.
The rest of the album ranges from upbeat to downright haunting. Spottiswoode lends his rich, single-malt baritone to two cuts: a garrulous, ragtime-flavored number sung by a construction worker to his absent girlfriend in a New York of the mind, decades ago, and another considerably more angst-driven, also vividly depicting an old New York milieu. Tam Lin sings a pensive 6/8 ballad, a childhood reminiscence with Irish tinges. Terry Radigan takes over the mic on a jauntily creepy circus tune, an understatedly chilling account of homelessness through a little girl’s eyes, and a quietly optimistic wartime message home from a young woman to her family – it’s never clear what exactly she’s doing or where she is, which makes the song even more intriguing. Kathena Bryant brings a towering, soulful presence to the September song Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Done, Jeremy Sisto sings a broodingly psychedelic criminal’s tale, and Rosler himself leads the choir through a deftly orchestrated reminiscence…of singing in a choir. Behind the singers, a rotating cast of musicians includes Chicha Libre’s Josh Camp on keys, Deoro’s Dave Eggar on cello and Mojo Mancini’s Shawn Pelton on drums.
In the leaps from the past to the present and then back – not to mention between styles and singers – the unifying concept of the recording booth sometimes disappears. And a few of the songs are duds: quality songwriters typically have a hard time dumbing themselves down enough to write easy-listening radio pop, and Rosler is no exception. But that’s where the ipod playlist comes in: all together, this makes a really entertaining one.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #551:
Greta Gertler & Peccadillo – Nervous Breakthroughs
Recorded mostly in the late 90s but not available outside Australia until 2004, this is a lush, sweeping classic of chamber pop and art-rock. With her sometimes stratospheric high soprano voice, sizzling keyboard chops and playful, unpredictable songwriting, Gertler comes across as something of a down-to-earth Kate Bush (hard to imagine, but try anyway). With a rock band and string section behind her, she veers from the Supertramp-style pop of Happy Again and the vividly anxious Highest Story to more austere, windswept pieces like Away and the quirky I’m Not a Lizard, and even a blazing Russian folk dance, The Hot Bulgar. The bitterly triumphant, intensely crescendoing Moving Backwards is the real killer cut here, although all the tracks are strong. With its killer chorus, Julian should have been the big radio hit; there’s also a boisterous Aussie football song, and the bouncy, Split Enz-ish Charlie #3. Mysteriously absent from the blogosphere and the sharelockers, it’s still available at cdbaby. Gertler has since taken her game up yet another notch as leader of the symphonic rock crew the Universal Thump, whose current album in progress is every bit as good as this one. You may even see it on this list someday.
About ten years ago, when Wanda Jackson played New York, she’d be at the Continental. It’s still there just north of St. Mark’s Place, now doing business as a tourist bar. Back then it was a punk club about the same size as Cake Shop. Last night the “queen of rockabilly” played Central Park Summerstage, something of a return to the big grange halls and stadiums that she and her boyfriend at the time, Elvis, used to play fifty-five years ago. That’s probably due to the fact that Jack White recently looked her up and gave her up-and-down career a new boost just as he did with Loretta Lynn. Jackson played some of those songs last night with her excellent, surprisingly hard-rocking Nashville band the Hi-Dollars and showed off a considerably lower but still animated version of the droll, quirky voice that made her a genuine star in the rockabilly and then the country world.
As a performer, Jackson is a humble, genuinely nice lady: it’s impossible not to like her. After one song had ended, still holding the mic, she looked over at her pianist. “That turnaround was awesome. Really lovely,” she told him. She’s in her seventies now, and as the show went on, it was clear that singing over the loud, sometimes almost punked-out band behind her was leaving her winded. So she told stories between songs, to catch her breath – and admitted to why she was doing it. She still has the ring Elvis gave her when the two started dating, and coyly told the crowd that her two children had squabbled over who was to inherit it. Jackson decided instead to will it to her firstborn grandchild, who “Can’t wait til I croak – I’m kidding, of course.”
And the two-guitar band rocked: their version of Chuck Berry’s Carol wasn’t as good as the Dead Boys, or the Brooklyn What, but it was pretty close. They made their way through a handful of Elvis songs including a surprisingly artful, nuanced version of Like a Baby, Jackson playing up the snide, sarcastic ending for all it was worth. She expressed some hesitation about playing country music at a New York show, but the crowd loved it. She pulled off several blue yodels and made it look easy, and if anybody was weirded out by her late 50s hit Fujiyama Mama – which openly references death in Japan via nuclear holocaust – they didn’t show it. Rhythm guitarist Heath Haynes (the same guy who devastated batters with his changeup during a stint as a promising righthander in the Montreal Expos system?) took over the leads on a biting version of Shakin’ All Over, as he did on a later number that sounded almost exactly like it.
There were other moments like that during the show. As the night wore on and Jackson wore down, so did the crowd, many of whom had already sat through the generic if energetic opening act, retro singer Imelda May and her band. When Jackson explained her religious reawakening in the mid-70s, the audience was less than enthusiastic – but within a minute she had pretty much everybody singing gospel. Finally, after almost an hour onstage, they launched into the cult favorite Let’s Have a Party and wrapped it up in a blaze of guitars. For the encores, Jackson invited May back to join her on a couple of numbers, including a brief reprise of that song. Most of the audience, a heartwarming mix of demographics, was still there.