Thursday, October 30, 2003

The White Stripes – Elephant (V2, 2003)

The backlash against the White Stripes began when the whole brother/sister shtick turned out to be an ex-husband/ex-wife shtick and started to overshadow the Stripes music. The backlash was in full effect when this CD debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts this spring. Most of the self-consciously indie folks jumped ship at the first whiff of popularity and left the band for the masses.

Which is not a bad deal at all. The band is worth the effort and if their popularity is a turnoff for the hipsters then so be it. The music itself kicks off with something that you usually don’t associate with their music, a bass line. The ominous groove that kicks off “Seven Nation Army” certainly sets the tone for an album that examines many emotional tones. The band augments their sound a few other times as well with multi-tracked guitars and the multi tracked vocals of “There’s No Home For You Here.”

Meg White takes center stage in a Mo Tucker like cameo on “Cold Cold Night” and “It’s True That We Love One Another” but the record truly hits its stride with the seven minute bluesy centerpiece “Ball and Biscuit.” The Stripes may have left their direct homages to the blues behind but the influence is still strong. B & B is a grinding double-entendre blues that features some of Jack’s most explosive guitar work and vocals.

All in all, it’s a fine album. Mixing the blasting garage rock they are famous for with blues, ballads and even folk influences, the Stripes have come into their own as one of the finest straight-ahead rock bands of the day.

Rating: 8.5

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (MCA/Chess, 1972/2003)

This is an expanded reissue of one of the last records of Wolf’s career. It was standard operating procedure to ship the great American bluesmen (and women) overseas to record with their adoring fans, British rock musicians. So, on this record you see luminaries like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood backing up the Wolf as he runs through some of his best known songs.

Records like this have always had a bit of a dubious reputation in the blues community, and yes, this doesn’t compare with Wolf’s protean recordings with either the Sun or Chess record labels, the old man still had some tricks left in his bag and it’s interesting to hear some of the studio chatter that was left in, listening to how the fawning British musicians try to cajole Wolf into picking up his guitar to join in and then Wolf explaining where the turnarounds are.

The music itself is solid but unspectacular. Wolf sounds tired, but the band is game and he rises to the occasion. It’s hard when you hear the old songs, because it’s tough not to think of the original versions that the Wolf cut when he was at the top of his game. Still, there’s some good music to be had here, from a lion, or in this case a Wolf, in winter.

Rating: 7

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Monday, October 27, 2003

Van Morrison – What’s Wrong With This Picture (Blue Note, 2003)

This is Van the Man’s debut with the prestigious jazz label, but it’s really a continuation of the folk/soul that Morrison has been mining for the past several years. Fortunately, this is also one of his better records of recent years. He’s still quite the curmudgeon (a word that comes up many times in the new biography Can You Feel the Silence by Clinton Heyland) bemoaning the media and his general perceived misfortune at the hands of fame.

You can tell by some of the titles involved – the title track, along with Goldfish Bowl and Too Many Myths play up the misunderstood woe-is-me Van Morrison. But luckily, he takes the opportunity presented by recording for a jazz label to record a couple of New Orleans standards, Whinin’ Boy Moan and Saint James Infirmary. He also come up with some nice ballads, Once in a Blue Moon and Somerset mine the confessional singer-songwriter genre as well as anyone could hope to do. At his best, Van can still pull the heartstrings without sentiment or sappiness.

The band sounds great as well – excellent arrangements and (thank goodness) he lays off the strings! While there may not be a jaw dropper like “Ballerina” or “Cleaning Windows” on this disc, it marks a good return to form for a musician who is not going to go quietly into the night.

Rating: 7.5

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Friday, October 10, 2003

Various Artists – Delmark Blues: 50 Years (Delmark, 2003)

The Delmark label has been a blues and jazz mainstay for a long time and to celebrate their 50 year anniversary, they have released this specially priced two-disc compilation of some of their finest blues. Although they are based in Chicago and have been instrumental in documenting that scene (along with Chess Records) what’s interesting about this compilation is the variety of the music available. From straight up Chicago blues to boogie-woogie piano, there’s quite a bit of music here.

Highlights abound but some of the real standouts include a killer live “I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Otis Rush – he brings this from deep down with some deeply impassioned singing and as always great guitar playing. Another real treat is the raw treatment of “Rollin and Tumblin’” by Little Walter backed by Muddy Waters. But there really isn’t a bad track on this set.

If you enjoy traditional blues, this is hard to beat for the price. And as an introduction to the Delmark catalog, whether for piano blues, classic south side guitar, or great female vocalists this compilation marks an excellent starting point.

Rating: 8

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Thursday, October 09, 2003

Chick Corea – Rendezvous in New York (Stretch, 2003)

Rendezvous in New York is a two-disc set of Chick in different duo and ensemble formats in a string of concerts to celebrate his 60th birthday. The set starts on a bit of a wrong foot for me with three rather lengthy tracks with Chick and Bobby McFerrin. I’m afraid that I’ve never had much patience for jazz singers (blues belters are quite another matter) and as interesting as McFerrin’s vocal gymnastics may be, I cannot warm to him. He takes the lead scatting on an abstract version of Blue Monk – Carmen NcRae aside, Monk is tough enough to play, let alone sing!

Things improve considerably when McFerrin leaves the bandstand. Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vituous remake some of a Chick’s trio music from the 70’s with a stirring version of Matrix, and then the band that put out the Chick Corea and Friends Remembering Bud Powell disc a few years ago, with Terence Blanchard replacing Wallace Roney. The band just rips through a medley of Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit, and it is a highlight of the first disc. Things mellow out a little bit with a duo performance with Gary Burton on Cyrstal Silence. Things move to a galloping conclusion on the first disc with a performance by the Akoustic Band of John Coltrane’s Bessie’s Blues.

Disc 2 picks up where the Akoustic band left off, with a nice version of Autumn Leaves, which was a mainstay of the Akoustic Band’s set lists back during their Grammy winning heyday. It’s interesting to see that the Elektric Band is not represented on these discs at all, one has to wonder if Chick is going the route of another Miles Davis alum, Keith Jarrett, and renouncing electric instruments altogether…

There’s a nice version of Armando’s Tango with the Origin group which has been the vehicle for some of Corea’s finest music of late. Excellent solos abound. A bit of a surprise after that, in the form of a piano duet performance of Concerto De Aranjuez, with Gonzalo Rubalcaba instead of longtime piano duet partner Herbie Hancock. It’s a very pretty performance.

The very successful second disc ends with performances of Lifeline with Corea’s current trio (Cohen and Ballard) and of Quartet Number 2 Part 1 (old confederates Brecker, Gomez and Gadd returning to the fold.) The music is quite nice and the crowd appreciates what the band is putting down.

All in all this was a successful release and continues Chick Corea’s string of winning acoustic albums. Where the mix ‘n match nature of the ensembles may throw off the continuity of the music and the lack of any electric fusion may keep this from being a true career overview, it’s still fine music and an excellent snapshot of where Chick Corea stands now as a jazz musician.

Rating: 7.5

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Thursday, October 02, 2003

Harold Ray – Harold Ray Live in Concert (Alternative Tentacles, 2003)

This album popped up in Emusic a few weeks back and I finally got a chance to give it a spin. Ray is a soul singer with a tight band and a lot of punkish energy. The thing that holds this disc back however is the crappy sound quality of the live recording. If I had gotten this on a Maxell during my old tape trading days I would have been thrilled, but with this as an actual record release the sound quality is pretty shoddy.

Regardless of the sound quality, the band is pretty hot and this release reminded me a lot of the classic Otis Redding album “Live at the Whiskey a Go Go” with the tight horn section and the band blasting “Satisfaction” riffs a la Otis’ band of yore. This band must be a blast to see in person, since all of the music was uptempo (it would have been nice to have a few soulful ballads thrown in for a chance of pace) and you can just imagine a packed, sweaty dance floor.

All in all this was an interesting release. If the quality of the recording was just a little clearer it would have been a real winner. It bugs me to say this, too because I’m not an audiophile. But it’s a good start – if they can bring the energy of this live concert into the studio for a well recorded album, they could really be on to something.

Rating: 7.5

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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Random thoughts…

· I picked up the new Miles Davis boxed set, The Complete Jack Johnson sessions. Being a big fan of electric Miles, I was looking forward to this set, but also approached it with a bit of caution… the two previous electric Miles boxes (The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions and The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions) have been hit and miss affairs. It’s interesting, you really gain a lot of respect for Teo Macero after listening to the boxes – being able to take the mass of material that the band recorded and working with Miles to distill it into these classic records. The BB and IASW boxes bring on the sausage and hot dog analogy – the end results taste great, but it’s a little unnerving how they get there!
But this is the case where more is more. I’m up to the third disc (out of 5) and was gratified to hear the jaw-dropping guitar riff that opens the Jack Johnson album and the jam that led from it. Even the multiple takes of each track have a different feel, which makes for fascinating listening, as long as Michael Henderson’s repetitive bass riffs don’t drive you nuts! John McLaughlin and to a lesser extent Sonny Sharrock are absolutely turned loose on this music, which is very much guitar oriented. Miles also plays some of the most aggressive trumpet of his career.

· I haven’t been paying as close attention to Martin Scorcese’s The Blues series on PBS as I should be, and I’ll probably catch up with most of it when it comes out on DVD. However, I was very happy to see one of my favorite contemporary blues musicians, Willie King, featured in the first presentation. Willie King writes some of the most socially conscious lyrics and puts them to a driving beat. His 2001 disc “Freedom Creek” made my top 10 for the year and last years “Living in a New World” was an honorable mention – both are highly recommended.

· I’ve been listening to some King Crimson lately, since the Downtown Music Gallery and certain posters on the Jazzcorner Speakeasy rave about them. I haven’t been into prog rock that much except for a brief flirtation with Yes and Rush in college. This is a different breed though with a lot of jazz and contemporary classical influences. I’ll have to listen to them some more, but so far I haven’t been turned off by what I’ve heard. I’ve picked up Lizard and Starless & Bible Black for the used vinyl bins in the area. Next I’d like to check out the British prog/rock/jazz band Soft Machine, which apparently did their best work in the late 60’s and early 70’s – this is another band the Downtown Music Gallery raves about. I have a couple of things of theirs in my stash at Emusic, so they will be explored in due time.

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