Sunday, January 22, 2012

DR2D 2

My choices for the best CDs of 2011... the first half was posted last week; see that post below.

REGGAE—If there was any real excitement in the Reggae scene last year, I missed it. New albums by Etana, Gyptian, various new young voices… ho hum. Tribute anthologies honoring vocal greats Beres Hammond and recently dead Gregory Isaacs, and Country Music (huh?). The “JamRock” single by one of Marley’s many sons… was that in 2011? Well, I did enjoy We Remember Gregory (VP Records VPCD 1927) with one CD devoted to remakes of Isaacs’ familiar hits--by Tarrus Riley, Duane Stephenson, Chris Boomer, Natel, Etana, Busy Signal, Jah Cure, and many others—and a second CD of old-style instrumental versions (not dubs) of the same tracks, driven by the reeds of old warhorse sax soloist-turned-producer Dean Fraser. (That second CD is pretty much superfluous, however, polite but lacking in pizzazz.)

Then reaching back into the past, back to 1980, I also picked up the grandly expanded 2010 reissue of UB40’s amazing debut, that dole-card package called
Signing Off—now a great set (2-CDs plus DVD) offering the original LP-plus-12” combination that introduced England’s racially mixed, politically rebellious, young Reggae adepts, with the second CD housing all their other 12” singles from that first powerhouse breakout year… But wait! there’s more: BBC radio sessions to round out CD #2, and then a lengthy DVD with five promo videos as well as primo performances from TV and live concert sources. In all, a terrific package from a great Reggaefied band that hit the ground running and rocking, reveling and rebelling, and that’s still going strong in 2012.

ROCK—I suppose the gradual re-emergence of Brian Wilson made this set inevitable… and hooray for that. Not Smiley Smile (truncated bastard stepchild LP), not Brian Wilson’s Smile (or whatever the remake from 2009 was called), but the real thing, the original Smile Sessions recorded by the Beach Boys as they were, a
two-CD box set (Capitol 509990 27664) with fancy extras--OMG, dig that crazy pinback!--offering all the master takes plus a great many alternates and rejects that survived Brian’s late-sessions mental breakdown and four decades of physical incapacitation. “Good Vibrations,” “Surf’s Up,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Wind Chimes,” “Vega-Tables,” even pieces of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Cool, Cool Water”—presented here in pristine shape, along with tapes of the works in progress. I hear the Grammys calling.

SOUL/R&B—For a couple of decades the Kent/Ace group of labels over in England has been compiling or reissuing great Southern Black Music of the Fifties to Eighties—James Carr, Percy Sledge, George Jackson, artists issued on small local labels and on Modern and Dootone out in L.A., all the best sessions of the Memphis to Muscle Shoals recording studio circuit. The set I’d name their crowning achievement came
out at the end of 2011, The Fame Studios Story: 1961-1973 (Kent/Ace KENTBOX12), the outer wrap with subtitle echoing Fame’s slogan, “Home of the Muscle Shoals Sound.”

Musician-turned-producer Rick Hall had “big ears” and some hard-earned luck, white Southern Soul and an indomitable will, and he turned a small studio in a small corner of Northern Alabama into an influential musical empire. Aspiring session musicians and songwriters flocked to cap-F Fame, where they gained sufficient small-f fame to move on to other studios and/or major careers in Memphis and Nashville. (Most prominent among those cool cats were the longtime main rhythm section of Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, and Roger Hawkins, songwriting session men Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham, and regular guitarists Joe South, Duane Allman, and Travis Wammack.)

In the meantime artists and producers eagerly made the trek to Muscle Shoals, anticipating that on-the-spot head arrangements, Hall’s canny luck, and the funky
Shoals sound would generate hits… And they did. This splendid set offers the solid proof, 75 hits and near misses on three CDs housed in 78s-styled mounted pockets, within a terrific 90-page mini-album book rich in color photos and equally colorful back-story text. So the hits kept on a-comin’—for Jimmy Hughes, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Joe Tex, Irma Thomas, Spencer Wiggins, Arthur Conley, Lou Rawls, plus Pop stars Tommy Roe, the Osmonds, Little Richard (!), and Bobby Gentry. Big names and forgotten ones, they’re all here; and bookending the set are Arthur Alexander’s early country-boy hit, “You Better Move On” (from 1961), and Travis Wammack’s polished, Marvin Gaye-styled remake cut a dozen years later, with 73 more configurations from Rick’s “Hall of Fame,” a veritable Soul Music heaven, in between.

SOUNDTRACKS—Supposedly there are between three and five thousand crazed/dedicated/collector-serious film score fans scattered around the States and the globe (Golden or not), and a half-dozen or so specialty labels dedicated to issuing/
reissuing/expanding/recreating favorite or out-of-print or forgotten, even completely unknown, film scores--one- and two-CD sets that present every single bit of music recorded for the film (including alternate and unused cues), not just the composer’s selection of 30 to 40 minutes that become the so-called “Soundtrack album.” For 2011 my money’s on the elegant and truly symphonic, “Expanded Edition” 2-CD set reissuing then-young composer James Horner’s stirring music for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Retrograde/FilmScore 80128-2), released in 1984. Dynamic, exciting, dramatic, occasionally acerbic, this really is a Symphony for Some-Other-Where in Time and Space—hinting at Sibelius and Prokofiev, Bruckner and Mahler, Jerry Goldsmith and Alexander Courage (film composers who’d already left their marks on earlier iterations of Star Trek), and not forgetting James Horner and those daring to go into the Great Unknown. Bravo!

BEYOND CATEGORY—Which section gets the music of Kurt Weill? Classical or Show Tunes? Pop Music or Jazz? The album I’m recommending belongs in all four.
September Songs (Sony Classical SK 63046) was actually issued back in 1997, but it took till 2011 for me at long last to pay attention while blogging at length about Weill and Jazz. And what I finally heard were brilliant interpretations by Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey, Charlie Haden and Betty Carter, William S. Burroughs and--wait for it--Lou Reed. Lou’s slow-mo, guitars-go-ballistic version of “September Song” is topped only by Weill interpreter nonpareil Teresa Stratas defining for always the little-known, accordion-driven, tango-habanera called “Youkali.” Find this great album wherever you can. (But find it.)

WORLD—Many record stores and on-line sellers lump (white) Cajun and (Black Creole) Zydeco in with World Music. True, it was started by French Acadiens chased from the Canadian Maritimes, who settled eventually in South Central Louisiana; but it quickly absorbed elements of Country and Caribbean Music, New Orleans
Rhythm 'n' Blues and even English Folk. I immersed myself in Cajun/Zydeco for weeks on end in late Winter-early Spring 2011, getting acquainted with over a hundred CDs. Which means I have the ludicrous task of narrowing that full shelf down to one or two examples…

Well, forget it. Look for the Swallow and Maison du Soul, Valcour and La Louisianne labels for the sounds of Southwest prairies and swamps—plus Rounder Records for its amazing roster and classic albums. Dig into three generations of Ardoins (from Amade to Chris); the Balfa and Delafose families; anything with mad fiddler Michael Doucet or cranky accordion-maker Mark Savoy; friends and rivals (little) Boozoo Chavis and (huge) Beau Jocque; white guys Steve Riley and Bruce Daigrepont and black guys Nathan Williams and Buckwheat Zydeco; old-time Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire and modern Zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier (who pretty much created it). And after you’ve absorbed
all of those, there's a historical hundred more to discover, from Jo-El Sonnier and Iry LeJeune to Joe Falcone, the Hackberry Ramblers, and Canray Fontenot.

But in the spirit of year’s best lists everywhere, I want to recommend the one excellent anthology I found that was actually issued in 2011--The Rough Guide to Cajun & Zydeco (World Music Network RGNET1265CD), a 15-track, hour-plus sampler of the hottest current or recent performers—which also comes with a no-number bonus CD: Bayou Road by Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, presumably an earlier set from last year's Grammy-winning Carrier group. But the Rough Guide compilation takes the prize for its currency, quality, and variety. Exciting young bands Feufollet, Pine Leaf Boys, Lil Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers, and Kyle Huval and the Dixie Club Ramblers vie for attention with solidly established acts like Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole, Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie (that's
Geno on the booklet cover), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and Jeffery Broussard, once powering Zydeco Force, now ramrodding the Creole Cowboys. Included too are a supergroup and a women’s group, bar bands and hip-hop influenced bands, even a Cajun New Ager!

“Rough Guide,” you say? Not really; it’s a lot sharper than that.

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