Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #569:
Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues
A virtuoso guitarist equally adept at delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, early jazz and rock, Lenny Molotov is also an acerbic, brutally perceptive songwriter and lyricist. This is his latest album, from 2010, an eclectic mix of all of those styles: if the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might have sounded something like this. Here he’s backed by a rustic, inspired string band including bass, drums, fiddle and blues harp. The early Dylanesque Wilderness Bound chronicles a symbolically-charged journey its narrator never wanted to make; Book of Splendor and the eerily hypnotic Ill Moon hark back to the delta, while Glorious evokes Woody Guthrie. The classic here is Freedom Tower, dating from the early days of the Bush regime, a witheringly sarcastic sendup of fascist architectural iconography (he says it much more simply and poetically than that). David Reddin’s Blues follows a similar tangent, a sardonic modern-day outlaw ballad, its killer on the run caught in an Orwellian snare. There’s also the swinging Faded Label Blues, a wryly bitter Jelly Roll Morton homage; the quietly defiant Devil’s Empire, and the bucolic waltz New Every Morning, which leaves no doubt where Molotov stands: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues, and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” This one’s real hard to find, but still available at shows – or check the blues bin at your local used record store, if you have one.
As usual, all kinds of stuff in the pipeline and no time to do it. Who put that Bushwick barbecue on the calendar here? Fess up! In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #610:
The Delmore Bros. – Classic Cuts 1933-41
Alton and Rabon Delmore really weren’t brothers, but that didn’t stop them from pretending they were. A lot of that kind of stuff happened in country music back in the old days. This massive 4-cd box set spans from the fire-and-brimstone country gospel of No Drunkard Can Enter There and Goodbye Booze – did anybody ever take these songs the least bit seriously? – to blues like Nashville Blues and I’ve Got the Railroad Blues, standards like Lay Down My Old Guitar and Blue Hills of Virginia along with creepy southern gothic tales like The Dying Truck Driver. Rustic, provocative evidence that there was an awful lot of cross-pollination between black and white musicians in those days. This one hasn’t showed up in the usual places, so in its place you might be interested in these 1933-35 radio tracks via Did You Remember El Diablo Tuntun.
Santa Cruz-based acoustic Americana hellraisers The Devil Makes Three play Maxwell’s tonight at nine. If you miss the Asylum Street Spankers, The Devil Makes Three are just as entertaining – and like the Spankers, they also happen to be an excellent band. The most recent album from guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean came out a couple of years ago. It’s called Do Wrong, Right, and it’s something that should have been on our radar at the time but wasn’t. It’s not just bluegrass with funny, surreal lyrics – the band also plays country swing, blues and Nashville gothic and does that stuff period-perfect as well.
The album is sort of a cross between the Spankers and Mojo Nixon’s duo stuff with Jello Biafra. The opening track, All Hail is a genuine classic: as they see it, the world is populated with clueless shoppers all wasted on crack and antidepressants: “It ain’t a drug, goddamn it, I give it to my only son,” says the guy on the way to the office thorazine party. The amusing intro of Poison Trees gives no indication of the ominous, apocalyptic shuffle that follows. The title track is a bouncy, violin-fueled bluegrass tune; they follow that with Gracefully Facedown, a woozy swing shuffle like early Dan Hicks. It’s a tribute to anyone who subscribes to the idea that “drinking bottom shelf bourbon seems to work all right til closing time.” For Good Again cynically mythologizes the band’s roots living in squalor, paying the rent in illegal drugs and writing songs that someday they’d get paid to play. “Everybody who’s anybody at one time lived in somebody’s hallway,” they assert, and they’re probably right.
Their Working Man’s Blues isn’t the Merle Haggard standard – it’s a haunting tobacco sharecropper’s lament with blues harp that sounds like it was recorded on another planet, a feeling echoed on a biting version of Statesboro Blues. The Johnson Family is an eerie, carnivalesque gypsy waltz; Helping Yourself puts a devious Curtis Eller-style spin on oldtime country gospel, spiced with an unexpectedly searing slide guitar solo. A spot-on early 50s style honkytonk tune that does double duty as raised middle finger to the boss, Cheap Reward unexpectedly quotes Elvis Costello; there’s also the careening slide guitar shuffle Aces and Twos and the unexpectedly epic Car Wreck. Good album – where the hell were we when this came out? You can get it at the band’s site or pick one up at the show.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #641:
The Stanley Bros. – All Time Greatest Hits
We’re gonna sneak another greatest-hits package in here because it’s representative, not necessarily because it’s any better than any other collection by these bluegrass legends – and their stuff has been packaged and repackaged a million times. Ralph and Carter Stanleys’ high lonesome voices, banjo and guitar, along with some topnotch 1940s and 50s Nashville players, rip through eleven songs, many of which have become standards. The real stunner here is Rank Strangers, one of the most vivid depictions of alienation ever set to music – its quietly resolute, suicidal atmosphere will give you chills. The one everybody knows is Man of Constant Sorrow; the rest of the gothic Americana includes Oh Death and White Dove. There’s also the prisoner’s lament Stone Walls and Steel Bars; the wry, amusing Don’t Cheat in Our Home Town; the English dance Little Maggie; the lickety-split Little Birdie, and for country gospel fans, there’s Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Mysteriously, this one isn’t very easy to find, so in lieu of this particular item you might want to check out something just as interesting, the complete Rich-R-Tone 78s collection, which is decent although the journey from 78 to digital was somewhat less than successful.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #645:
Flatt & Scruggs – 20 Greatest Hits
Hope it’s ok with you if we go to the well two days in a row for some more Americana roots. Bluegrass guitar legend Lester Flatt first joined forces with iconic, paradigm-shifting banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs in the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1946. There’s such a glut of their stuff floating around that we suggest this out-of-print collection (if you can find it) as a solid representation of their fast fingers at work. The one that everybody knows is Foggy Mountain Breakdown; other standards here include Sunny Side of the Mountain and Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Yonder Stands Little Maggie is actually an English folk song; Salty Dog Blues is a dirty song, while country gospel is represented by Preachin’ Prayin’ Singin’. There’s also a drinking song – Drink That Mash And Talk That Trash – sad ballads – We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart and Farewell Blues – the chain gang song Doin’ My Time, the wry I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open, the nostalgic My Cabin in Caroline, a couple of instrumentals, a blistering bluegrass version of Dill Pickle Rag and a pointless Carter Family cover. Mysteriously hard to find in the usual places: as an alternative, check out two delicious discs worth of 1950s radio recordings with the Foggy Mountain Boys via scratchyattic.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #712:
Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys – Bluegrass Classics
You may have heard the story about a teenage Jerry Garcia rushing to his motel room to audiotape a tv show featuring these guys so he could pilfer their licks. By the time this 1964 collection came out, Jim and Jesse McReynolds (guitar and mandolin, respectively) were past their peak as stars of the Bible Belt, even if musically they’d never been better. Like all country bands of the era, they were singles artists; as an introduction, this compilation is as good as any. It’s more virtuosic than fiery; like a lot of roots acts, they were better onstage. It’s a mix of nostalgia, longing, cheating and kiss-off songs: Las Cassas Tennessee, When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again, Drifting and Dreaming of You, I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, The Violet and the Rose, Take My Ring from Your Finger and a bristling version of Nine Pound Hammer among the ten tracks here. Jim drank himself to death just a couple of years after this came out; Jesse, now in his eighties, still performs and hasn’t lost a step, most recently recording an album of Dead covers. Here’s a random torrent.
Grim, lurid and gorgeously tuneful, Frankenpine’s new album The Crooked Mountain is definitely the darkest album of the year so far – and it might be the best. We’ll sort that stuff out at the end of the year. In the meantime, the dozen Appalachian gothic songs here will give you goosebumps. A hundred years ago, when the music that inspired this album was the soundtrack to daily life, that life was short and hard and these songs reflect that, even though all but one of them (John the Revelator, reinvented as lush acoustic psychedelia) are originals. To her credit, frontwoman/guitarist Kim Chase doesn’t drawl or otherwise try to countrify the songs: her casual, plaintive unease is plenty bracing. Banjo player Matthew Chase teams up with bassist Colin DeHond, creating a fluid underpinning for Ned P. Rauch’s resonator guitar and mandolin, Liz Bisbee’s violin and Andy Mullen’s accordion.
Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, the opening track, Texas Outlaw spins off the riff from the Stones’ Paint It Black, with some rich harmonies and tense, bluesy violin. One of the few lighthearted moments here, La Fee Verte is a tribute not to absinthe but to the kind of gypsy jazz hole-in-the-wall that might serve it. Prototypical undercover reporter Nellie Bly’s trip to a grisly 19th century New York insane asylum gets immortalized on the richly lyrical, absolutely macabre Blackwell Island, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Moonlighters’ catalog. And Faceless Weaver turns a catchy garage rock verse into bluegrass, with a starkly inscrutable lyric and some neat handoffs from one instrument to another.
Rauch sings the blistering, cynically resolute murder ballad Never Lie: “I’m gonna lie my way into heaven when I shoot my way to hell.” Over Your Bones paints a sad, ghostly wartime tableau that could be set in the south in 1864, or in Afghanistan right now. They follow the fiery minor-key instrumental Wolf at the Door with the rousing, Pogues-ish down-and-out chronicle Baltimore, and then Cold Water, which leaps abruptly from hypnotic ambience to rolling, rustic beauty. Convict Grade, a title track of sorts, has the kind of stoic optimism – or at least resolute conviction – that’s found throughout so many rustic tales of hard time. And the most gripping of all the tracks might be the eight-minute epic Eye of the Whale, a surreal, grisly seafaring narrative with a stunner of an ending. There are scores of Americana roots acts with great musical chops and harmonies, and plenty with good original songs and lyrics, but few who combine them with this kind of originality and singleminded intensity. O’Death fans will love this stuff. Frankenpine plays a “steam powered battle of the bands” at Theatre 80 St. Marks on Feb 19.
Oldtimey harmony hellraisers the Roulette Sisters burst on the New York scene in the mid-zeros. They were one of the first groups to have a Saturday night residency at Barbes, put out a wickedly fun debut album, Nerve Medicine (which made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list), and then went their separate ways for awhile. Resonator guitarist Mamie Minch made a career for herself as a solo artist, releasing her defiant solo debut, Razorburn Blues in 2008. Meanwhile, electric guitarist/banjo uke player Meg Reichardt joined forces with Kurt Hoffman in charming French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins, washboard player Megan Burleyson kept busy in New York’s “hottest washboard swing ensemble,” the 4th St. Nite Owls, and violist Karen Waltuch maintained a career as a player and composer encompassing everything from klezmer, to country, to the avant garde. They reunited last year, and they’ve got a new album out, Introducing the Roulette Sisters, whose title makes sense in that this is Waltuch’s first full-length recording with the group
They open and close the album with lushly beautiful harmony-driven songs; a viscerally plaintive cover of A. P. Carter’s The Birds Were Singing of You, with a poignant guitar solo from Reichardt and lead vocal from Minch, and at the end a winsome version of Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart by Papa Charlie Jackson. Likewise, they take It Could’ve Been Sweet, by Leon Chase – of hilarious cowpunk band Uncle Leon & the Alibis – rearranging it into a shuffle that becomes a sad waltz on the chorus: “I’m not looking for a twenty year loan, just a little something extra to get me home.” The rest of the album is the innuendo-laden fun stuff that they’re best known for.
Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me, the Bo Carter novelty song, gets a female perspective. A Reichardt original, In the Shade of the Magnolia Tree, is an outdoor boudoir tune in a balmy Carolina setting. Burleyson does a pitch-perfect hot 20s bluesmama evocation on Hattie Hart’s I Let My Daddy Do That – as in getting her ashes hauled, i.e. opening the door to the coal chute. As funny as the vocals are, it’s one of the most musically rich moments here, a lush interweave of acoustic and electric guitars and viola – Waltuch’s pizzicato solo, like a koto playing the blues, is as much a showstopper as it is in concert.
Their version of Do Da Lee Do takes an old western swing standard and adds lyrics out of Reichardt’s collection of bawdy songs from over the years: “Roses are red and ready for plucking, I’m sixteen and ready for high school,” for example. Scuddling, by Frankie Half Pint Jaxon, is a “dance” you can do by yourself – which you could also do with someone else if they were willing – but definitely not in public. And Al Duvall’s Jake Leg Blues explores the legacy of Jamaica ginger, a Prohibition-era concoction whose side effects produced a whole lot of Eves without Adams: “In the garden I hang my head, I’m grabbing for apples now the snake is dead,” Minch snorts authoritatively. The album comes in a charming, old-fashioned sleeve handmade on an antique letterpress. There are hundreds of bands who mine the treasures of oldtime blues and Americana, few with the fearlessness and sass of the Roulette Sisters. As fun as it is to see them in small clubs in Brooklyn, where they really deserve to be is Lincoln Center, doing their vastly more entertaining version of a great American songbook.
Here we are back in Babylon, where the mayor only wants the streets free of snow in the white neighborhoods: and guess where we are. Anybody feel like shoveling? In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues as it does every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #761:
Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops – One More in the Cabin
By the time this Brooklyn/Pennsylvania bluegrass band (formerly the Pine Barons) put out this album, their third, in 2002, they’d honed their period-perfect oldtime sound to a high lonesome wail, in the process helping to jumpstart an already nascent New York country music scene. Unlike so many other bluegrass traditionalists, Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford write their own songs, and they hit hard: these folks are throwbacks to a harsh, bucolic era, which they hardly romanticize. Poverty and unwanted pregnancy (the title track’s theme) are just as likely to make an appearance in their songs as lost love and homesickness. This isn’t polished music – although it is extremely well-played – and its spirit has a lot more in common with punk rock than it does with jam bands. Maybe for that reason, Neko Case got them to back her on a live album, and they quickly outgrew the small club scene that they’d played so ecstatically and memorably for years. The fourteen mostly upbeat tracks here are packed with inspired picking and fiddling; google it for a torrent if you’re short on cash (the band would understand). If you’re not, we highly recommend the independent band’s smartly-produced cd for party music, for waking up and getting out of the house and for long road trips.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #774:
The Viper Mad Blues anthology
This compilation features old songs from the late 20s through the 40s about smoking pot, and occasionally, snorting coke. This old jazz and country shizzit is more punk than the Ramones and more gangsta than L’il Wayne ever dreamed of, and although it was banned from the radio it was wildly popular in its day. The coolest thing about the 25 tracks here is that only two of them, Cab Calloway’s 1935 hit Kicking the Gong Around (which is actually about smoking opium), and a gleefully adrenalized version of Leadbelly’s coke anthem Take a Whiff on Me, are really obvious. The others have proliferated thanks to youtube and file sharing, but when the compilation came out in 1989, it was a tremendous achievement…for those who like funny songs about drugs, at least. If ragtime guitar star Luke Jordan’s Cocaine Blues (not the version you’re thinking of) is to be believed, that stuff was a staple of hillbilly life back in 1927. Some other highlights: Larry Adler’s hilarious 1938 hit Smoking Reefers; Cleo Brown’s deadpan The Stuff Is Here and It’s Mellow; Champion Jack Dupree’s Junker’s Blues, a kick-ass piano boogie from 1944; Baron Lee & the Blue Rhythm Band’s 1935 tribute to their dealer, Reefer Man; and Fats Waller’s Reefer Song: “Hey, cat, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, here we are in Harlem, everybody’s here but the police and they’ll be here in a minute. It’s high time, so here it is…” Here’s a random torrent.