Sunday, February 23, 2014

2013 Picks Too

Here are the mini-reviews of 2013 faves that were unfinished when I posted the first part (see it two steps down) of this year-end list:

Country, with Americana The recent Grammy Awards agreed with my pick for Country album (we don't often match), choosing the saucy, sexy debut disc from "pert 'n' purty" Kacey Musgraves, her album boldly titled Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury B0018029-02, I think) and exhibiting sufficient white trash talk and post-Miranda attitude to launch another ready-for-primetime Nashvillainous career. Some titles here--"Blowin' Smoke," "Step Off," "Keep It to Yourself," "Stupid"--tell that part of her tale: smart lyrics, fine tunes, a solid opening salvo. As Miz Kacey concludes, "It Is What It Is."

Plenty more salvos in my choice for across-the-boards album of the year: Divided & United (ATO Records 2CD set #0882188429) which commemorates/celebrates 34 pieces of "popular" music from the 150-year-old American Civil War/War of
Secession/War Between the States--step-out dance tunes, sentimental ballads, raucous marches, tragic tales of brother against brother, recruitment rally cries, sly minstrel show numbers, anti-war shouts, forgotten folk songs, ex-slave exultations, escapist melodies and more, some of them familiar, but most either unknown or made new by a richer context and inventive arrangements, and all of them Sumterally hand-picked, highjacked and gobsmacked, and whole-heartedly sung by a brigade of Old Guard Country artists and Alt.Country avant-gardizens, ranging from Ralph Stanley to Chris Thile, Lee Ann Womack to Cowboy Jack Clement, T Bone Burnett to Taj Mahal, Carolina Chocolate Drops to the Old Crow Medicine Show, not to mention those perennial favorites, Shovels & Rope. (Say whut?)

And after that exhausting sentence, let's just point to several of the most striking discoveries and performances awaiting your attention... Loretta Lynn launches and amazes with "Take Your Gun and Go, John." Del McCoury immortalizes "Lorena,"
and Joe Henry does right by "Aura Lee." Ex-X man John Doe summons campfire camaraderie with his muscular take on "Tenting Tonight," while Chris Hillman and (especially) Vince Gill evoke the bleak lives and battlefield casualties signaled, respectively, by Stephen Foster's disheartening "Hard Times" and heart-rending "Dear Old Flag." You'll hear Yankee taunts and Rebel yells, from the "dear old Southland" to the original minstrel show "Dixie." You'll join in the Battle of Antietam, see the Fall of Charleston, march through Georgia with Sherman, and pray for all the Johnnys gone soldiering, returning home again finally in some horrific state. For two hours plus, those battle cries echoing, you'll picture sons set in butternut grey and inkbottle blue--tragic historic scenes scored by music alternately rousing and crepuscular, and grass picked much more blue than green. Maybe it truly is The War That Never Ended.

Reggae got Soul Despite fine younger artists like Etana, Tarrus Riley, Morgan Heritage and such, 2012's releases in honor of Jamaica's half-century of independence continued to adumbrate and dominate most of my listening. To hear some of the island's all-time best, lend your ears to (1) VP Records' 3CD set VPCD1962, Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music, sending 51 hot & solid cinders--from Lord Creator to Lady Saw, the Skatalites to Cocoa Tea, Alton Ellis to Mr. Vegas, Junior Byles to Gyptian, and Eek-a-Mouse to Elephant Man... BlueBeat, RockSteady, Dance Hall, Roots & Culture...
dis yuh Reggae Music. Together with (2) the complementary 2CD set SO 2012 from the island's single most important label, titled "The Sound of Young Jamaica": 50 Top Studio One Hits and replete with major mega-tracks recalling the breakthrough heydays of the Heptones, the Maytals, the Wailers, the Abyssinians, the Wailing Souls, Slim Smith, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Johnny Osbourne, and pre-Culture Joseph Hill. That there's pretty much the roll call of Jah-Makin' music... seen?

No other record company, not even Germany's venerated (but oh so expensive) Bear Family, does as good a job keeping the spirit--and reality--of '60s Soul Music
alive and available, as does England's great reissue concern known as Ace/Kent. Among varied on-going series, the dual label's Kent half has been scouring both release lists and unissued material created at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama--a seemingly bottomless vault of gold. Albums compiled from sessions by Candi Staton, James Govan, George Jackson, as well as some obscure/unknown performers, proved excellent additions to the Fame story, but my Soul picks this time are a pair from the Ace "Songwriter Series," 24-track collections devoted to hits, misses, and forgotten album gems composed here by Dan Penn or Allen Toussaint and sung by the princes and pretenders, kings and queens of Soul and Pop.

(1) A Road Leading Home: Songs by Dan Penn (Ace CDCHD 1370), whether written solo or in collaboration, offers a splendiferous harvest of hits Penned by the top white-boy Soulster, including "Dark End of the Street," "Almost Persuaded," "Rainbow Road," "You Left the Water Running," "Do Right Woman," and "Like a Road Leading Home," as interpreted by Irma Thomas, Percy Sledge, James and Bobby Purify, the Drifters, Ted Taylor, Esther Phillips, and so many more. Likewise, (2) Rolling with the Punches: The Allen Toussaint Songbook (Ace CDCHD 1354) features Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Millie Jackson, the Judds, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke, Bonnie Raitt,
Don Covay, Z.Z. Hill... well, I could drop all the names, but enough already... shining a light on "Shoo-Rah," "Ride Your Pony," "Fortune Teller," "Yes We Can Can," "Working in the Coal Mine," "Southern Nights," "Hercules," "Freedom for the Stallion," "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky," and umpteen more samples from 50 years of Toussaint-ctified New Orleans hits.

Woody'n you, Bob? Last year was the hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, and the Guthrie Foundation celebrated by moving West to those Oklahoma hills folks used to sing about--and by issuing a few special repackagings honoring the works of Woody, most importantly the 6CD+DVD set on Rounder Records called Woody
Guthrie: Radical American Patriot
. This is Woody the wandering Okie, natural lefty, Fascist-killing guitar-machine, and Columbia River troubadour--a true patriot no matter how radical. Dust Bowl ditties, sex-ed jingles, radio skits, egalitarian e-lec-tri-SIGH-TEE entreaties and entertainments, and the famous Library of Congress recordings complete for the first time ever. Plus book, photos, drawings, excellent DVD doc of Woody workin' for the BPA, even a 78 rpm record of rare tracks by Guthrie and his staunch follower, young Bobby Dylan, all pieces housed in a lookalike 78s album circa 1944.

As for Bob the temporary acolyte, he's well-served by Columbia/Legacy 2CD set 8883 73487 2, Volume 10 in the legal bootleg series, titled Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). When the original Self appeared way back, there was great consternation; critic Greil Marcus infamously thundered, "What is this shit!?!" Calmer fans speculated that Bob had lost his edge in the motorcycle accident, or was passing off studio rejects to satisfy his contract for so much "product," or was thumbing his nose at the Columbia Records bosses, or...

Looking back now, listening to this ear-opening array of alternates and rarities, it seems more likely that Bob was trying to get back to his Greenwich Village roots, pay belated homage to early folk mentors, take a gentler, post electric-rock
approach (soon to surface in Nashville Skyline, say)--above all else, do things his own way, whether rushed, or ragged, or brilliant, or forgotten on some goof-off rehearsal tape. Marcus might have asked instead, "What does this signify?" I think the answer was something like Paul Anka's song for Sinatra and then Elvis: Bob was saying, as he has all along, "My Way, or the highway... and on this day anyway, that's Highway 61 Receding in the rear-view mirror. Need a lift?"

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