Review Round-Up



From the first half of the year, some
of the good and better releases not yet getting their due.


Marianne Faithfull, Vagabond Ways

(Instinct)


For better and for worse, Marianne Faithfull’s best work usually delivers
emotions of regret, sorrow, and rage. Although a survivor who refuses to wallow
in despair, the raspy harshness of her voice finds its most powerful expressiveness
in haunted, pained tales of women’s blues. Such edgy singing and dark-themed
tunes will never win a wide audience, but when song arrangements and production
balance the mood and message, Faithfull can weave a powerful spell. With a
few lapses, that’s what happens on Vagabond Ways.


Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night  (Windcharger/Rounder)


With his natural nasally singing and a body of poetic songs rooted in heartbreaks
and honky tonks, Jimmie Dale Gilmore has won a devoted following of folk and
country fans who steer clear of Nashville product. On One Endless Night,
his sixth solo album, Gilmore presents mostly cover tunes of material penned
by other Texas writers (Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey,
Walter Hiatt, Steve Gillette) and few odd surprises by Jerry Garcia (“Ripple”)
and Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (“Mack The Knife”). A low-keyed
diamond in the dirt.


Lambchop, Nixon  (Merge)


This 13-piece band is being labeled alternative country, but the music they
make doesn’t really fit any current marketing scheme. There are certainly
country roots in the group’s mix—the old school Nashville Sound
and the twangy rawness of Hank Williams—but the doses of funk, punk,
and invention put Lambchop out there somewhere in an Americana beyond.
One of the great oddball records of the year.


Susana Baca, Eco de Sombras

(Luaka Bop)


Introduced to western ears on the 1995 Luaka Bop anthology The Soul Of
Black Peru
, Susana Baca is now getting a chance to “crossover”
to a more broad mainstream audience. Blending Peruvian sounds and musicians
with adventurous U.S. players such as keyboardist John Medeski (Medeski, Martin,
and Wood), guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Los Cubanos Postizos) and bassist
Greg Cohen, Eco de Sombras clearly pushes toward a new, undefinable
brand of “world music.” Baca’s soulful African-rooted singing,
however, keeps these sad and triumphant tunes soiled in the history that gave
them birth.


Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Everybody’s
Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing!
 (Fat Note)


The Bay Area-based Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers play a wonderful
and uplifting variety of Black music that gained popularity in the first half
of the 20th century. Celebrating swing, jump blues, New Orleans R&B, and
bebop, Smith and Co. evoke a time when popular music could be hilarious, sexual,
raucous, sophisticated, and subversive all at once. Behind all the surface
retro appeal, however, lies the marvelous musicianship of an outstanding eight-piece
band and Smith’s modern feminist interpretations of tunes by Bessie Smith,
Ida Cox, Helen Humes, and Esther Phillips. Anyone digging Basie, Ellington,
Dinah Washington, and a little sensuous low-down fun should track this one
down.


Gary Lucas, Improve The Shining Light (Knitting Factory)


Avant guitarist Gary Lucas is best known for his work with the legendary Don
Van Vliet, a/k/a Captain Beefheart. A few may recall his brief tenure in the
band of the late Jeff Buckley. With that relative obscurity in mind, the recently
released Improve The Shining Light provides a much-needed overview
of an always searching guitar poet whose sound is like no one else. Culled
from live performances, TV soundtracks, and studio recordings, the album captures
acoustic and electric work stretching from 1980 to 2000. Describing his approach
Lucas says, “You play every note as if it has no relation to the note
before it…so every note has the same amount of tension, like it’s coming
out of nowhere.”


Mekons, Journey To The End Of The Night (Quarterstick)


Born in the British punk upsurge of 1977, the Mekons have spent more than
two decades decrying the personal/political contradictions of life within
late 20th century capitalism. Laying out their critiques against various woozy
mixes of country, punk, and pop, the Mekons walk a tightrope between despair
and hope, coloring both with sarcastic humor and defiant anger. Their 13th
album continues in the same vein, but this time styling the tunes as bleary
folk ballads and slow chugging reggae. One of their best.

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        Culture






Kronos Quartet, Caravan  (Nonesuch)


The Kronos Quartet has long been subverting notions of “high art”
and “classical music” by infusing elite traditions with “classic”
tunes from folk, rock, and jazz. Challenging the strictly Eurocentric hold
on “classical,” the group has also developed a wide repertoire of
compositions by composers from all over the globe. Now, with the recent release
of Caravan, the quartet brings this wide ranging multicultural interest
to record. Including music from Mexico, India, Iran, Argentina, and Portugal,
Caravan is the group’s richest and most compelling foray into
“world music” since Pieces Of Africa.


Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free  (Loud); Common,
Like Water For Chocolate
(MCA)


There’s a new breed of Hip-Hop rising and Dead Prez and Common are at
the forefront of an overdue turn away from the cliched and destructive values
of gangstaism. Self-billed as a cross between NWA and Public Enemy, Dead Prez
is aiming its anti-capitalist, Black Panther-influenced politics at people
of color “sick of living in this bullshit.” Rather than rehashing
tales of urban gang life and moral decay pervasive in modern day rap, Stic.man,
and M-I employ their firebrand rhetoric to attack the system. In tunes such
as “‘They’ Schools,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Police
State,” and “We Want Freedom,” angry, hard- pumping beats fuel
a call to arms and awareness detailing school brain washing, police brutality,
and the steady growth of the prison industrial complex. Like Public Enemy
in days of old, however, some of the toughest rhymes are aimed at brothers
and sisters sold out to the values of me, materialism, drugs, and crime.


The Chicago-born Common has much the same agenda, but a different way of making
his point. With sterling musical support from jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove,
soul man D’Angelo, vibist Stephon Harris, and rappers Mos Def and the
Roots, Common lays down a variety of multi-textured backdrops—enhancing
moods that alternately soothe and rage. In the end, however, Common, like
Dead Prez, is out to turn his peers toward community activism and social responsibility.
And, yes, that includes new attitudes toward women.


Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Tony Rice, The Pizza Tapes
(Acoustic Disc)


From a loose and very informal two-night jam comes this wonderful recording
of three superb musicians making music for the pleasure of creative play.
Recorded in 1993 in mandolinist David Grisman’s basement, The Pizza
Tapes
captures guitarists Tony Rice and Jerry Garcia joining Grisman for
a relaxed exploration of common folk and bluegrass roots. Playing mostly standards
such as “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Shady Grove,” Garcia
and Rice take turns inspiring each other’s inventive solos while Grisman
supplies a steady bed of rhythms and riffs to keep things nailed down. Here
and there Garcia kicks in raw, heartfelt vocals, but the real fireworks come
in the fluid interplay between Rice and Garcia.


Kate Wolf, Weaver Of Visions:

Anthology  
(Rhino)


The late northern California-based singer-songwriter Kate Wolf always remained
too folkie to make a commercial splash in country or rock. These days, however,
alternative country and roots music fans are beginning to pick up on her long-neglected
legacy. With that upsurge of interest in mind, Rhino has released a 2-CD anthology
providing an essential overview of her work. A collection of 35 songs, featuring
10 live performances and 2 previously un-released tracks, Weaver Of Visions
spans Wolf’s career and includes most of the “hits.” Like kindred
spirits Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, Wolf confronts life’s hard
knocks with courage, intelligence, and resilience.


Tarbox Ramblers, Tarbox Ramblers  (Rounder);
Bad Livers,
Blood & Mood (Sugarhill)


Though Boston-based, the Tarbox Ramblers play a style of dirty mutant blues
that sounds like it crawled out of some forgotten backwoods town in the deep
south. But with their rough and rowdy ways, the Ramblers are too impure to
be taken for traditionalists. There’s strong strains of country and jug
band running through their Delta-rooted noise. In the old-time vocals of Michael
Tarbox you’ll hear echoes of Spider John Koerner and Dock Boggs.


For an even more twisted take on southern music, check out the most recent
release of the Bad Livers. Although still rooted in old time country and bluegrass,
the Livers are now mongrelizing tradition with hip-hop. With sampled beats
and assorted electronic effects thumping under and around banjos and guitars,
Blood & Mood creates a kind of contemporary hillbilly blues resonating
alienation and disenfranchisement reminiscent of country singers in the 1920s
and 1930s. A weird and true slice of rural America in the new century.                        Z