Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Various Artists: Classic Sounds of New Orleans

Various Artists
Classic Sounds of New Orleans
Rating: 4.0/5.0
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Depending on a listener's opinion of old-time jazz and blues, Classic Sounds of New Orleans will either be tediously inaccessible or a small but essential piece in that big puzzle of America's musical past. It focuses on a single region's musical heritage for a relatively brief period, primarily from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, though many of its songs date much further back. Some of the tracks have dodgy sound quality - lo-fi years before bands deliberately tried to sound like they were recording from the depths of a flushing toilet - and don't necessarily lend themselves to a lifetime of repeated listening. Still other inclusions, like a shoeshine boy singing "Hambone" in the French Quarter, street musician Freddie L. Small providing a harmonica-only version of a jazz standard, street vendor Dora Bliggen shouting about blackberries and Baby Dodds simply drumming for a couple minutes, seem best served in a classroom setting or for gravely serious discussion among that bearded professorial set for whom Moses Asch remains a patron saint.

But the album is also audio archiving at its finest, again confirming Smithsonian Folkways' standing as one of the most trustworthy record labels in terms of musical preservation. Its packaging is stellar, if anyone cares about that type of stuff anymore, while the release's overall aesthetics are faithful to the styles and sounds of the New Orleans jazz and blues represented here. Its front cover is a reprint of Doc Paulin's Marching Band and the back cover is that of The First Kid Clayton Session; between those covers, period photos of musicians with nicknames like "Snooks" Eaglin and "Wolfman" Washington help put the listener in a Crescent City mindset. The liner notes written by Coppin State professor Robert H. Cataliotti contain background information about the origins of these recordings as well as a history of each track, are richly detailed and examine these songs from the perspective of how they fit into both African American culture and New Orleans folklore.

Classic Sounds should not be dismissed as purely a specialist's release or as something only to be studied with detachment. The bulk of the album is thoroughly enjoyable, especially in moments that capture New Orleans' buoyant and jubilant spirit, like the jazzy bounce of the Eureka Brass Band's "Just a Little While to Stay Here," the ragtime piano medley of H.J. Boiusseau's versions of "Take Your Big Leg Off Me/Easy Rider/Mama Don't 'Low No Music Playing Here" and the wildly mad horns and vocals Jimmy "Kid" Clayton and his band bring to "Jimmy's Blues" and "Corrine, Corrina." Other songs are far less joyous and pack an emotional wallop like only the best blues can, especially Doc Paulin's rendition of the spiritual funeral procession song "We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City," the murder fantasy of "Careless Love ("I'll dig your grave/ I'll dig it with a silver spade") and the beware-of-stones-that-you-throw sentiment that Roosevelt Sykes brings to "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone." With its mournful vocals and simple guitar melody, Eaglin's interpretation of "Saint James Infirmary" also ranks as one of the album's more harrowing tracks, while Sister Dora Alexander's "Times Done Changed" expresses a dread for the present and a perhaps naive nostalgia for days long gone that could apply to nearly any generation.

In any collection like Classic Sounds of New Orleans, there will inevitably be some notable exclusions - "James Alley Blues" immediately comes to mind - but it's impossible to summarize an entire city's musical history on a single disc. Though all of the songs here have been previously released, they come from impossible-to-find albums and the broad overview that Classic Sounds provides is timely and welcome. Its appeal to a mass audience may be limited, and it's not an album that can easily be listened to start-to-finish, but it almost perfectly documents the key characteristics of New Orleans' diverse musical personality.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Various Artists: Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe: A Woodsist Compilation

Various Artists
Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe: A Woodsist Compilation
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Woodsist

The people behind the Woodsist label hope you still have a Walkman (if you're old) or a record player (if you're really old) stashed away somewhere, as the limited release Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe: A Woodsist Compilation is available only on cassette and vinyl. While vinyl remains almost uniformly revered - with numerous artists still releasing their albums on the big disc - the cassette's legacy is more ambiguous. In some ways cassettes were unarguably awful: the sound was frequently shitty, goddamn if the ribbon didn't always somehow get eaten by a hungry tape deck and there were no aesthetics to speak of, as album covers that looked glorious on vinyl were mercilessly shrunk down to fit the cassette's rectangular shape.

But cassettes made that most sacred of musical artifacts - the mixtape - possible, and for this reason alone, they deserve some respect and a bit of wistful nostalgia. For those of us of a certain age, it didn't get much better than spending hours compiling that perfect batch of songs, either for personal use or for someone else. Relationships could be made or broken from the content of such a cassette mixtape. It was a serious endeavor, man, and it took serious effort; we didn't have the luxury of letting Amazon or iTunes Genius make recommendations for us. And we walked to school in the snow uphill both ways.

Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe displays all the best traits of such cassette tapes, with 12 of its 13 songs exclusive to this compilation and almost every last one of them showing that the state of modern indie is still pretty damn good, for one label at least. The songs included here don't sound like oddities, one-offs or leftover scraps, not even the curious Grateful Dead and Cure cover songs from City Center and Skygreen Leopards, respectively. For the most part, the songs adhere to the lo-fi/punk-lite template with which Woodsist is most frequently associated, an approach that works especially well on Nuggets-recalling garage rock tracks like Run DMT's "Richard," White Fence's "The Love Between," the Fresh & Only's "Heel.Toe" and Nodzz's "Old Clothes." There are also some worthy anomalies: Alex Bleeker's "Gettin By" features an unadorned guitar jangle and breezy country-inflected vocals, while Ducktails closes the album with the brief acoustic instrumental "Sun Out My Window." As with any compilation, a few songs aren't quite up to par - the echoed vocals on Moon Duo's "A Little Way Different" quickly become tedious, while the vocals on Cause Co-Motion!'s "Over You" suggest the ghost of Joey Ramone was channeled for this song - but it's easy enough to forgive a few clunkers when so much good stuff surrounds them.

Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe starts with "I'm Not Gone" by Woods, label founder Jeremy Earl's band. Certainly ownership has its privileges, but regardless, it's a fittingly auspicious start to a set of tunes that rarely disappoints. Though this release isn't on the same level as gold standards like Nuggets or even the recent Dark Was the Night - and there are some notable exclusions, most obviously Wavves and Real Estate - it serves as validation for Woodsist as a label and the solid talent roster it has built up. It also just might make some listeners long for those olden days when cassettes were like currency for many of us.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blue Giant: Blue Giant

Blue Giant
Blue Giant
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Vanguard Records

Blue Giant is a lot like a fairly respectable record store that plays pretty decent music that can be tolerated for about 30 minutes, before the charm of hearing songs that all sound innocuously familiar and ingrained in the past begin to grate on the nerves. Though this is a debut full-length release, it's not the work of beginners, as the band was founded by Anita and Kevin Robinson (Viva Voce) and Seth Lorinczi (the Golden Bears), with ex-members Chris Funk (the Decemberists) and Evan Railton (Swords), a solid pedigree that makes Blue Giant's underwhelming execution all the more surprising. With a few notable exceptions, the album feels like five musicians doing little more than mimicking the folk, country, bluegrass and 1970s classic rock - and all the negative connotations that last genre carries with it - to which the album is indebted.

Those few exceptions show the album could have fared much better. Anita Robinson sings a couple genuine weepers that are every bit as countrified as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn or even Lucinda Williams; on "Lonely Girl," the singer tells the familiar story of a woman "thinking about that lucky break" that just might get her the hell out of her podunk, hickburg hometown. "Gone for Good," a duet sung by Kevin Robinson and guest musician Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney)- and not a Shins cover- is accented by twangy pedal steel guitar and a goin'-down-that-old-dusty-road vibe. A few songs turn up the volume and likewise succeed, particularly the banjo and harmonica-fueled "Blue Sunshine" - a tune apparently about a guy whose wife smacks him around - as well as "Clean the Clock," which starts the album off on a rollicking country rock note that most of what follows can't quite match.

The album tends to play out like a retread of the past a little too much though, both in sound and the cast of characters that miserably stumble across its canvas. There is a fair amount of over-indulgence in slight tracks like "Run Rabbit Run," "Wesley" and "The Game," all of which are ruined by electric guitar excess and inane lyrics like, "So we've been livin'/ But we are hardly alive/ We've been there for years/ And we have never arrived." "The Void Above the Sky" is framed as a classic country song but instead unravels like a bastard child of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and the "Rawhide" theme song. Quintessential sad-sack figures seem to have been forcibly removed from the hard-luck American music playbook and dropped smack into the middle of the album, whether it's the poor wounded-in-love schmuck of "Target Heart" or the morose brooders of "When Will the Sun Shine?" and "Go On."

The lyrics don't help the cause either; though the Robinsons have a flair for an incisive turn of phrase, more often these lines veer heavily toward the banal and clich├ęd. Although these lyrics are never cluttered or flowery, they aren't exactly mind-blowing or original either: a listener can hear simplistic aphorisms like, "Your head is hot/ And your heart is cold/ The damage done is gonna take its toll" and "When it's over/ It's over" almost anywhere these days.

Five of the songs from Blue Giant previously appeared on the Target Heart EP, and though such recycling is understandable if the content is good enough to warrant it, that's not the case here. It's also not possible to write off the album as a handful of musicians just messing around, as its songs carry with them a certain degree of seriousness. Blue Giant is serviceable as a blend of American roots music, but very little distinguishes it from other records that mine that same territory. Listeners have heard this type of stuff before, and this album doesn't do much to suggest they need to hear it again.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Alasdair Roberts & Friends: Too Long In This Condition

Alasdair Roberts & Friends
Too Long In This Condition
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Drag City

If ever there was a voice ready-made for singing folk ballads, it's Alasdair Roberts.' Roberts sings in a distinctly Scottish brogue; his voice sounds like it could well be from another musical era, one where a rose and a brier grow from young William and Barbara Allen's gravestones, criminals are hung from gibbets and the hair of a drowned girl is used for the strings of a fiddle that magically tells how her sister killed her. No Earthly Man (2005), a collection of traditional British and death ballads, was a natural fit for the musician, evoking those mystical and mysterious bygone days, even if the manner in which its songs were arranged squarely marked him as a contemporary folk singer.

All of which should make Too Long In This Condition - another collection of quaint old songs, plus one written by the musician's father - a brilliant release. Roberts is clearly comfortable with performing traditional music, as several of the songs included here have been part of his live shows in recent years, but familiarity and earnestness can have their drawbacks, and despite a mix of revered standards like "Barbara Allen" and "The Golden Vanity," as well as a few delightfully obscure inclusions like "Long Lankin," Too Long too often feels boring, mostly humorless and overly reverential. The versions of "Little Sir Hugh" and "The Lover's Ghost" in particular have all the characteristics of rotting museum pieces kept under glass; both songs are fairly cumbersome and plodding, lacking any real sense of vitality. Other songs are performed so goddamn seriously that they evoke images of coffeehouse folksingers the world over, with "What Put the Blood on Your Right Shoulder?" and "The Burning of Auchindoun" absolutely reeking of stone-faced and coldly sober sincerity. Roberts and his backing band treat these songs like sacred hymns, but this approach only presents a frustratingly reductionist view of these tunes.

The album does have its merits, though any real flashes of brilliance are rare. Too Long begins magnificently, as its first four songs - "The Daemon Lover," "Young Emily," "Long Lankin" and "The Two Sisters" - manage to sound ingrained in the past but also relevant for this decade. The album ends nicely as well: though the story that unravels in "Barbara Allen" can be construed as too melodramatic by modern listeners - who dies of a broken heart these days? - Roberts' version masterfully captures that song's ambiguity toward both William and the title character, both of whom are impetuous, tragic and maybe just a little bit stupid. The album also includes detailed liner notes about each song's provenance, as well as a bibliography/historiography of sorts, a handy guide for anyone interested in tracking down other versions of the songs included here.

It's no easy feat covering such songs that contain their own unique symbolism and mythology, as well as a propensity for fair maidens, bonnie lasses and the phrase "but for the love of thee." Roberts gives it his best effort on Too Long In This Condition but the results are scattershot and inconsistent. It's a nice enough release, but for someone as well-versed in these strange little tales as Roberts, expectations run high. More often than not those expectations aren't met, regardless of however well-suited the musician is for this content.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Perfume Genius: Learning

Perfume Genius
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Matador

A reviewer can really feel like a prick for criticizing songs that are apparently as personal as those on Perfume Genius' debut LP, Learning. The man behind the band name is Mike Hadreas, whose hard-life biographical back story has already made the rounds in the indie press almost to the point where it's difficult to discern that dividing line between truth and clever PR. Though knowledge of Hadreas' background unarguably gives the album an added gravity and Learning has been hailed as an instant classic by some media members, such praise seems just a tad bit excessive. It's an affecting mood record whose themes of death, isolation and - just maybe - redemption will strike a chord with countless listeners, but it's weakened by a too-uniform sound and a few cumbersome individual tracks that detract from the album as a whole.

In photos, Hadreas appears gaunt, frail and bruised, which is also a fitting way to describe Learning's sound. Its 10 songs are only roughly sketched out and most often consist of lo-fi piano, organ and synthesizer, often in a minor key and held together by Hadreas' thin vocals. The album's stark sound is that of a man struggling to deal with some serious shit and that comes through in the songs; starting with the opening title track and continuing throughout, Hadreas sings like he's too weak to get the words out. He usually makes it though, offering listeners loaded-gun lines like "No one will hear all your crying/ Until you take your last breath." The album maintains this funereal tone for the bulk of its nearly 30 minutes, with only closing song "Never Did" suggesting even the faintest hint of acceptance or comfort.

Many of the album's primary concerns are familial, and references to fathers, mothers and sisters can be found in nearly every song. The recurring figure of Mary is encouraged to write to her brother "every night until he recovers," while the central image of "When" is that a woman holding her daughter in her arms. "Lookout, Lookout" plays out like a particularly dismissive elegy for someone who's presumably dead, as Hadreas says, "He will not be missed/ He didn't have a family to begin with." The portrait of the suicidal jumper and title character that emerges in "Mr. Petersen" - that of an older man who gives the narrator a Joy Division tape and lets him smoke weed in his truck "if I could convince him I loved him enough," as the narrator remembers - is ambiguous and can either be charitably viewed as paternalistic or something far more perverse.

Learning falters on occasion though, especially when Hadreas strays from the album's emphasis on minimalist arrangements and mostly discernible vocals. The hymn-like drone of "Gay Angels," as well as the submerged vocals of "No Problem" and "Perry," are atypical and distracting; for all of its lo-fi qualities, the album has all the markings of a traditional singer-songwriter release, where these songs only succeed when their content connects with the listener. These few flaws are enough to make Learning far less than the masterpiece it's been described as, but it is undoubtedly a disarming, introspective release filled with the types of raw emotions we usually keep to ourselves. Mike Hadreas makes these traumas public, giving us a glimpse into one man's struggles that aren't exactly pleasant to hear about but are also impossible to look away from.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way

Hamper McBee

The Good Old-Fashioned Way

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Drag City

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According to Tennessee legend and his own self-mythologizing, at various points in life, Hamper McBee was a moonshiner, army man and carnival barker. He also reportedly worked as a mule driver, timber cutter and construction man. He drank a little bit and then drank a whole lot more, spoke in a down-home Southern drawl and had the type of facial hair that would make Franz Nicolay jealous. He was an amateur musician and consummate yarn-spinner whose rough edges perfectly captured the spirit and tone of the songs he'd play. He could have been a character from a Tom Waits song.

McBee's reputation as both an irreverent lyricist and an eccentric interpreter of songs has afforded him a modest cult following in the years following his death. That reputation is primarily tied to 1978's Raw Mash: Songs & Stories of Hamper McBee, an impossible-to-find and altogether-too-brief glimpse of the McBee mystique. That album has now been repackaged with a dozen or so previously unreleased tracks as The Good Old-Fashioned Way, which pretty much contains as much McBee as anyone could ever possibly need or - for those who aren't on board - want. It's a niche item to be sure, but for listeners who fancy themselves students of American, English or Irish folk music or who simply need another peculiar artist to complement their Baby Gramps, Daniel Johnston and Vic Chesnutt records, this reissue should suffice.

Among the many singers who have tackled traditional folk ballads, McBee's approach was unarguably unique; he sang unaccompanied by any instrumentation, his weathered voice sounding as dusty and boozy as anything you'd find on a Harry Smith anthology. None of the songs McBee covers on Way are particularly obscure - McBee favors standards like "Black Jack Davy," "Streets of Laredo," Jack of Diamonds," "John Hardy" and "Knoxville Girl" - but stripped of any instrumentation and propelled by McBee's ragged voice they are undeniably powerful and show just why there's nothing quite like these bizarre songs. The album closes with a previously unreleased version of "Dark as a Dungeon" - that famous miner's lament that has been covered by the likes of giants like Dylan, Cash, Louvin and Nelson - with McBee's brief version stripped to the bone and evoking the song's desperation and fatalism in a way those masters never quite did.

This sincerity and obvious appreciation for the past sits uneasily alongside McBee's absolute lack of political correctness or basic decorum. While McBee originals like "Jasper Jail" and "Wauhatchie Yards" fall neatly within folk's common motif of downtrodden, hard-luck protagonists, elsewhere McBee celebrates folk music's vulgar side. It's not quite Nick Cave absolutely obliterating the Stackalee ballad, but a few inclusions come close. He clearly gets a kick out of the crude "Sally Make Water" and the even cruder title song, and also offers a "damn limey" version of "Cabbage Head," complete with a cockney accent and no attempt at subtlety ("When I came home the other night drunk as I could be/ There's was a thing in your old thing where my old thing should be"). This blue material is augmented by several of the musician's profanity-laced monologues, where he talks about his frequent bouts of public drunkenness, how he'd swindle lovestruck boys out of their money when he worked in the carnival, what it's like to guzzle still mash and why he's glad he's an Episcopalian ("they believe in drinkin,' and hell I do too"). It's the type of stuff you don't talk about in polite company, but one gets the impression that McBee never really gave a damn about polite company.

Charles Wolfe's liner notes from the 1978 album are reprinted and the package's overall aesthetics are solid; for those wired a certain way, The Good Old-Fashioned Way is a music collector's dream, as it combines the intimacy of a home recording with the occasional coarseness of a treasured bootleg. This album is not for those who offend easily, and, coupled with an abrasive personality that some listeners could find grating, it's hard to imagine McBee appealing to a broad audience or getting much widespread attention. Still, I suppose stranger things in music have happened, and it doesn't get much stranger -and, at times at least, better - than Hamper McBee.