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Category — Records to Die For

Records to Die For 5: Dirty South, Sacred Steel

Drive-By Truckers
The Dirty South
New West 6058 (CD). 2004. David Barbe, prod. AAD TT: 70:42

Ambitious, zealous, emotional and fueled by Jack Daniels, The Dirty South, like its song about tornadoes, careens randomly across the cultural landscape. Three distinct songwriters telling tall tales of Carl Perkins, John Henry, Buford Puser, bootleggers, World War II vets and nasty rednecks who “empty out shotgun shells and fill ’em full of black eyed peas,” set to music that ranges from hard metal to country rock. The Truckers will almost make you believe in rock ‘n’ roll again. Their emotional tribute to the Band’s Rick Danko and Richard Manuel seals the deal. (93)

Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida
Arhoolie 450 (CD). 1997. Robert Stone, prod. AAD TT: 74:29

The original recordings of two Pentecostal sects who traded the organ for a steel guitar in their worship services put American gospel and church music through new filters. The music is familiar, but it’s different; shades of blues, Hawaiian and surf music, R&B and small-combo blues and country-western join the hymn-and-gospel mix. Glenn Lee’s catchy “Joyful Sounds” inspired the Word, a pop group featuring Robert Randolph, this music’s only real crossover. The goal is to make the steel sound like the human voice, and nothing does that better than Willie Eason’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Poor Man’s Friend.” “It was sad about Roosevelt” he wails. When he lets loose, the steel guitar cries real tears. (115)

The assignment: Write about an album you would die for in 100 words.

November 29, 2010   No Comments

Records to Die For 4: Goodbye Jumbo and Aereo-Plain

Goodbye Jumbo
Chrysalis/Ensign F221654. 1990, Karl Wallinger, prod. TT: 53:36.

Listening to Goodbye Jumbo is like making your way through the detritus of an audio attic – stepping amongst old 45s, vinyl albums, eight-tracks and memorable riffs, bridges and choruses. Though every Karl Wallinger song stands on its own, there are plentiful references to icons from the Beach Boys to Prince to the Beatles, and yes, those are the “whoo-whoos” from the Rolling Stones “Sympathy from the Devil” leading out “Way Down Now” and the melodies of “Please Mr. Postman” and “Be Bop A Lula” underpinning “When the Rainbow Comes.” There is not a song here that you can’t sing along to. (102)

Rounder 0366. 1971, David Bromberg, prod., Claude J. Hill, eng.
TT: 40:10 .

The record that changed the bluegrass landscape forever. Until then, captive to RCA producers who didn’t know what to do with his literate, often hilarious songs, Hartford slipped below Warner Brothers’ radar, hooked up with David Bromberg and some of the genre’s top guns and tore the lid off traditional bluegrass. Together, they spilled out the contents, rolled them back up with some kind bud and let the tapes roll. Aereo-Plain’s combustible jumble of old-time reverence and flower-power curiosity was an unofficial muse for a new generation of players (led by Sam Bush and New Grass Revival) that has spread the framework and the influence of bluegrass far beyond its original borders. (112)

The assignment: Write reviews of two great records in 100 words. These were my choices for 2004.

November 16, 2010   No Comments

Records To Die For 3: Sailing to Philadelphia and Mr. Tambourine Man

Sailing to Philadelphia
Warner Brothers  47753-2. 2000. Chuck Ainley, Mark Knopfler prod.; Chuck Ainley, eng. TT: 60:34

Like Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler’s talent as a guitarist is knowing that, sometimes, NOT playing is more important than cutting loose. “What It Is,” the only real anthem here, opens to the bombast of fiddles, and on many songs, the instruments and delivery are little more than a whisper. But Knopfler’s 13 vignettes – which include a prairie wedding, black gospel singers living out of their car, an itinerant professional race car driver, a rock band that sounds like Dire Straits on its first tour and the Englishmen who sailed to Philadelphia to survey the Mason-Dixon line, among others – cut to the quick, carried  by Knopfler’s always elegant, always bluesy guitar lines.(112)

Mr. Tambourine Man
Columbia 64845. 1965. Terry Melcher, Bob Irwin, prod.; Vic Anesini, eng. AAD. TT: 45.43

Sweetheart of the Rodeo gets all the hype, and this album has taken its share of abuse for having used studio musicians. But heard as the opening salvo of an American-Brit tit-for-tat with the then-indomitable Beatles, Mr. Tambourine Man still stands proud. Besides letting Lennon, McCartney and Harrison know we weren’t all a bunch of rubes over here, the Byrds, studio musicians and all, brought Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Jackie DeShannon into the electric age, where they belonged, and introduced the talents of Gene Clark to the world at large. Oh, and along the way established forever the electric 12-string as part of the rock vocabulary. (108)

This is the third installment of Records to Die For, which I wrote for Stereophile magazine over the years. The assignment is to write about your favorite records in 100 words. These were my choices for 2003; number of words in parentheses.

November 9, 2010   No Comments

Records to Die For 2: Doug Sahm’s The Last Real Texas Blues Band and Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait

The Last Texas Blues Band
Antones 10036 (CD). 1994. Clifford Antone, exec. prod.; Malcolm Harper, eng. TT: 56.30.

Confession: I had to be coerced into seeing Doug Sahm onstage the first time. I only knew Sir Douglas’ “She’s About a Mover” and “Mendocino,” and there he was playing ringmaster for the most eclectic and perhaps the finest three hours of live music I can remember, a veritable phantasmagoria of pop nuggets, polkas, soul, R&B, tejano and big- and small-band blues. Along with Juke Box Music (the soul version of this big-band collection), this is how I most like to remember Sahm, that bemused grin beneath the cowboy hat, wandering among the ghosts of Texas music, recalling T-Bone and Guitar Slim, mimicking Fats Domino and leading the band to ever higher plateaus. The definition of Texas music. (118)

Self Portrait
Sony 30050 (CD). 1970. Bob Johnston, prod. TT: 73:15.

The only real problems with Dylan’s most misunderstood and unheard album are the timing and the title. Were it released as The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 in 2002, it might not have dismayed critics and confused most of the rest of his audience. Dylan has long claimed it was his response to unauthorized, bootleg recordings, and that description fits — from the scattershot sequencing to the wildly eclectic repertoire. Given the current Dylan penchant for unpredictable covers in his live show, mixing up country ballads, folk standards and contemporary favorites and a sprinkling of his own songs seems downright rootsy. Most interesting is that except for his voice, Self-Portrait isn’t much different from his onstage act today. What goes around comes around. Self-Portrait takes us full circle. (127)

The rules are that the reviews be 100 words or less, and I went a little long on both. These originally appeared in Stereophile magazine in 2002.

November 8, 2010   No Comments

Records to Die For: Disraeli Gears; Dark Was the Night

I just my annual invite from Robert Baird, music editor at Stereophile magazine, to participate in the magazine’s year-end RTDF poll. RTDF stands for Records to Die For, and Baird’s rules are that you write reviews of two albums currently in-print, that you have fun and use no more than 100 words, which makes them similar in style to the short reviews popularized by Robert Christgau in his monthly Consumer Record Guide in the Village Voice and Creem that I grew up with. One hundred words is just a few quick sentences. (This paragraph is 123 words.) Trying to say anything coherent that quickly — especially about a record I love — is always an interesting exercise.

This is my tenth year, so I thought it would be fun to post each year’s two entries. I still stand behind each and every choice. We’ll start with the year 2001.

Disraeli Gears
Eric Clapton, guitar, vocals; Ginger Baker, drums, vocals; Jack Bruce, bass, vocals.
Polygram 531811 (CD). 1967/1998.
Felix Pappalardi, prod.; Tom Dowd, eng. TT: 33:33.

Strange brew. The rainbow has a beard. Tales of Ulysses. Whimsical wah-wah. Delirious drums. Big bass. Harmonies from some higher dimension. SWLABR. There is little doubt that Cream’s short career sowed the seeds for future musical prowess (and excess) while wedding the blues to psychedelia. But not here. Disraeli Gears is about economy, stupid. These 11 songs are notoriously lean and mean, with the longest, “Sunshine of Your Love,” clocking in at a little more than four minutes. Along with Highway 61 Revisited, this is where rock finally pulled up alongside the blues and waved back. (97)

Blind Willie Johnson
Dark Was the Night
Blind Willie Johnson, guitar, vocals; Willie B. Harris, vocals.
Time: 50:40.

With lyrics ripped from Baptist hymn-books and Scripture, a mannered steel-guitar style and a moaning, tortured voice that cried like a prophet in the wilderness, the street evangelist known as Blind Willie Johnson worked the crossroads between Saturday night and Sunday morning. This is as scary as religious music got in the 1920s, or any decade, for that matter. Original versions of “If I Had My Way,” “Dark Is the Night,” “John the Revelator” and 13 others you probably thought were written by someone else. (85)

November 7, 2010   No Comments