Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"La Pampa y La Puna" by Yma Sumac

Desde mi pampa querida
Yo salté a la cordillera
Linda, jovena andina
Porque en tu voz divina
Canta la primavera

Y al ver que así
Me has vencido con la atracción de tu quena
Yo amoroso te he traído mi canto querido
Más amargo que tu pena de ti virgen del sol

Linda ñusta del Perú, tienes la virtud de encadenar a tus pies mi corazón
En el rítmo cadencioso del canto querido
Prendes de un fuego divino la nueva emoción

Linda ñusta del Perú, tienes la virtud de encadenar a tus pies mi corazón

Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, 1922-2008

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Little Walter / The Best of Little Walter (1958)

Little Walter's amplified, overdriven, tough-as-nails harp is in full force on this best-of compilation. And for once, the "best of" label might actually apply to the contents of the record. "Blue Lights," "Tell Me Mama," and "Watch Yourself" paint Walter as the hard character that he was, and showcase his innovative and distinctive harp style. As if the original sequence needed to be improved, the editors included some unissued outtakes. Usually, I prefer these on an additional disc, but with a compilation, sure, I'll take them at the end of the program. Strikingly different settings of some previously issued material shed light on how the band worked, and what we might have heard, had other decisions been made. For some more essential Little Walter, be sure to listen to the sessions he did with other Chicago blues musicians, particularly the eyebrows he put on Muddy Waters anthems like "I'm Ready," "Baby Please Don't Go," and "Got My Mojo Working" (not included here). It's a shame we don't have much in the way of Little Walter recorded live, at least not compared to other blues artists who survived into the 1970s and were able to reap benefits from the blues revival in its nascence when he died. For an essential live document, try Little Walter and Otis Rush Live in Chicago, which also goes by a few different titles.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

365 Dry Martinis, my new blog.

I've done a little bit of jazz reviewing here on Dusty Slabs, but I've opened a new, jazz-only review blog called 365 Dry Martinis. Stop by and read short reviews of a different jazz album each day. They're each under 10 sentences, a form that I'm discovering is much harder to master than it sounds. If you're interested then please follow the link below, or you can find it in the sidebar at right. Have a nice day...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Steely Dan / The Royal Scam (1976)

Royal Scam is like the middle child in the Steely Dan discography, a precocious adolescent record that is somewhat awkward in its nascence while offering tantalizing hints at the brilliance and sophistication that became the band's hallmarks. I don't listen to it nearly as often as its immediate predecessor Katy Lied or masterful successor Aja, but each time I do, I remember what I'm missing. Those might be two of my favorite albums, but Scam is an underappreciated gem hiding in the shadows of its bigger brothers. I think it unfairly suffers for sounding, perhaps, too similar to Katy Lied while not quite achieving the same level creamy sophistication that was captured on Aja. Indeed, many of the songs would fit in nicely with the set on Katy Lied, and if you were so inclined, a seamless resequencing of the two records isn't a far fetched idea. But regardless of Scam's lack of further groundbreaking in terms of stylistic appeal, if you like Steely Dan, then you should find plenty to sink your teeth into. Scam has all the characteristics I attribute to Becker and Fagen's work.

As per usual, no two songs sound alike, and each one features a core group enhanced by a veteran session man. These contributions provide a variety of aural textures that buoy the program. Whether they are anchoring the rhythm section or setting the front line on fire, you can always expect fireworks from the sidemen on a Steely Dan LP. On almost every track, I really enjoy the Chuck Rainey's solid and soulful bass playing, for instance, and prominent work by guitarist Larry Carlton imparts a dazzling and sometimes grainy feel that was missing among the fold of Katy Lied. (The scholars among us will note that Carlton did the guitar bit on Katy Lied's "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More.") You'll also note the work of Steely stalwarts Denny Dias, playing the first solo in "Green Earrings" and Elliott Randall, who does the second. Becker steps out from behind the glass and gives the solo on "The Fez." And while he only gets a single solo spot, Paul Griffin plays piano on "Sign In Stranger," an ascerbic poke at musician union cronies. It's easily is my favorite track and possibly the best solo on the record.

Of course, it wouldn't be Steely Dan if the lyrics didn't tell great stories (part fact, part fiction?) in entertaining and cryptic language colored by great one-liners. Right out of the gate, Fagen spins sly yarns about counterculture kingpins, the music business, coming of age, and the plights of stupid young lovers, with more than a dash of wry irony and humor. Musical styles bridge the territory between jazz, soul, blues, pop, disco, and full-out rock and roll. I suppose that is what the word "fusion" is for, but because it has acquired other connotations that do not apply to Steely Dan, I want to steer away from it. If you're having trouble decoding some of the lyrics or want to fully appreciate the juicy imagery employed by Fagen, then stop by and have a look at the Steely Dan Dictionary.  It's a user supported thing, so shoot them an email if you've got something to share. If that doesn't do it for you, then visit the Official Steely Dan Homepage FAQ -- which actually references the aforementioned SD Dictionary. I think you'll find the website is as entertaining as some of their liner notes. I've been listening to this record for a few hours now, and started my latest affair with it a few days ago. It's a rare thing when a record wears in to the equivocal point of a runner's high, providing more enjoyment on repeat listening, rather than less. There aren't many acts who can pull that off. As far as music goes, I love these guys. And I hope they don't ever stop. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Wire / A Bell is a Cup until it is Struck (1988)

Wire was always hard to pin down with only a few words. Before punk, post-punk, industrial, new wave, no wave, and cold wave were household descriptors, Wire's music seemed to encompass qualities of all these styles seemingly at once. The band's sound was always a few steps ahead of whatever was popular (or unpopular), and Bell is no exception. It retains the obtuse lyrics, Dadaist sensibility, and lush aural textures that seasoned listeners appreciate. The 1970s punk aesthetic is replaced, at least on the surface, by more relaxed vocals and more sophisticated sonics, so the product is more accessible than ever. If you're looking for attitude, it's alive and kicking in the biting lyrics and musical content, too. There is even a hit single, "Kidney Bingos," a pop oddment destined for obscurity if not for an earworm chorus. Side two gets down to business and reminds you which group you're listening to, and completes the recipe for a good Wire record replete with aggressive noise, ghastly synths, and buzzing guitars aplenty. It's a diverse collection of songs that will appeal slyly to listeners more accustomed to conventional rock and electronic music, while still delivering the choice alternative goods to the faithful.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Grateful Dead / Workingman's Dead (1970)

The summer of 1970 was the summer of the Grateful Dead. Talk about a busy group -- a mammoth American tour with New Riders of the Purple Sage, nightly concerts lasting until dawn, two studio albums, writing new material, a change of format.... you can tell I'm impressed. Although released several months before American Beauty, the slab Workingman’s Dead is definitely in the same vein, stylistically, but the records aren’t interchangeable. Workingman’s Dead is darker than the successor, in both content and production. The albums also had different producers. But together, they are the fraternal twins of the Dead’s americana period. As with American Beauty, the two characteristics that stand out most are the lyrical contributions of Robert Hunter and the band’s rich vocal harmonies, the latter influenced by a friendship with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Both are introduced on the side one opener, “Uncle John’s Band,” which is an archetypal acoustic singalong affair, marked by a lighter touch from all involved and some uncanny vocal harmonies. Garcia’s work throughout the record is considerably more diverse than it was later that year. He picks 5-string banjo for the careening “Cumberland Blues” and his gritty licks on the Stratocaster take center stage for “Easy Wind” and “New Speedway Boogie.” The country ballad “Dire Wolf” is propelled by Garcia's masterful work on the pedal steel, and along with Bob Weir, his acoustic guitar is everywhere. Pigpen does the tough album’s toughest number, “Easy Wind,” before everything is drawn to a close with the unforgettable “Casey Jones.” Damn! What a good record. As with other CD re-releases in the Dead's back catalog, it comes with bonus tracks that make entertaining filler, but are what I consider to be nonessential material that should have been placed on a second disc. Am I the only person who wants to preserve original continuity? When I hear that telltale sniff at the beginning of Casey, I want the record to end. It's the whole point, after all. But I don't let that bother me, and I listen anyway.

The Grateful Dead / Europe '72 Vol. 2 (2011)

This sequel to the Dead’s triple-live long player Europe ‘72 is another chapter in the GD saga, and another commercial release of treasured vault material from a band with enough vault material to keep the CDs rolling out for at least another 50 years. If you’re not a bootleg collector, then this release (especially when taken after digesting the aforementioned predecessor) is a good cross-section of the Dead’s set first overseas tour. While the sound quality is excellent and the sequencing is even good, I prefer to listen to the 'original' Europe '72 for reasons I feel hard pressed to explain. Admittedly, I once had an embarrassingly large collection of Dead tapes so none of this material is new on me. I guess over the years, so many vault releases down the road, I've moved on from the knee-jerk reaction of, "wow, this sounds great compared to my supposed 2nd gen copy!" When I turn on a CD like this, I just hear a good quality rip of some shows that I've long been familiar with on tapes. So please don't be put off by my lukewarm reception, because the Dead were always better in 1972 and this is no exception. In fact, if you're totally new to the Dead, then I recommend you start here because the tracks represent what they did best: country, blues, and mind bending instrumental psychedelia. You don’t have to be a Deadhead to enjoy the record, either, it should appeal to a wide audience, at least a wide audience of classic rock listeners. None of these tracks appear on the predecessor, and all of them are welcome additions to the document. Notably, a '72 “Dark Star” finally sees the light of day. Gems from the first the first disc showcase the band’s transition into the short-song format introduced in 1971, cuts that demonstrate the band’s willingness to shed the ‘inaccessible’ label while proving that they hadn’t lost their any of their improvisational prowess. Also included are two Pigpen tunes, “Chinatown Shuffle” and “Next Time You See Me,” as well as a handful of other live staples. Pig's numbers were always my favorites, and 1972 was his last tour. Before I get too nostalgic, take a look at that cover. See? Ice cream kid is back! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Syd Barrett / The Madcap Laughs (1970)

This spartan solo effort from the lost founder of Pink Floyd is half-baked in parts, and beautifully complete in others. It’s uneven, sure, but so was its creator. It stands as a sad and beautiful testament to the mental and emotional decline of an outstanding creative mind, and the efforts put forth by his friends and former bandmates to salvage his gifts. The record sounds uneven, but it's not distracting and Syd was pretty uneven at the time so part of you is expecting to hear the consequences his mental state had on his music making abilities. “It’s No Good Trying” is a dark and noisy romp through squalling walls of feedback and topsy-turvy cadences. The hypnotic rhythm and droning lyrics march through the speakers like a musical zombie, intent on completing the song but with a reanimated or disembodied feel. “Love You” and “Octopus” are examples of the Kevin Ayers-style English whimsy Barrett proved so adept at writing for the first Pink Floyd record and it's nice to get another view of that facet before the window closed completely. Other songs, “Dark Globe,” “Long Gone,” and “She Took a Long Cold Look” speak to Barrett's emotional side, and offer listeners an intimate glimpse at the human being living behind the hype. On “Golden Hair,” Barrett interprets musically and with his voice the words of a James Joyce poem. If the rest of the album doesn’t do it, this track will hold you transfixed with its pure magic. Yes, magic.

Various Artists / Hittin' on All Six (2000)

This set covers the development of jazz guitar in the 20th century through the work of its most influential or innovative stylists. It is quite possibly the best set of its kind, or at least the best one that I've come across. It explores the subject to an ideal depth, so the presentation is both informative and also enjoyable to listen to without losing focus or bogging down in unnecessary examples. Arranged chronologically, we hear selections from every crayon in the box, including both lead and rhythm aces, from ragtime to bop. Thus each phase of jazz guitar is illustrated in its proper context across three decades. There are sides aplenty from big stars like Django, Lonnie Johnson and Charlie Christian, but you'll also find sides by lesser players like Tiny Grimes and Bus Etri. With so many highly skilled jazz guitarists working today, it’s easy to take the guitar and its many historical innovators for granted. Here you have the best of the best, collected in one place.  Incidentally, by covering the great bands, the program is also a good introduction to early jazz in general – you get Bix, Bird, Duke, Basie, Louie, and others all in one place. Don't miss Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson trading licks on “Have to Change Keys (To Play the Blues),” just one rare delight of many.

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman / Shady Grove (1996)

Before he was “Jerry Garcia” of the Grateful Dead, he was a guy named Jerry Garcia with a passion for folk music and a natural talent on the guitar and banjo. As the Grateful Dead exploded, Garcia continued moonlighting with his other interests. Here he teams up with longtime friend and equally capable 8-string slinging partner David Grisman to treat a batch of old American favorites on their respective acoustic instruments. The atmosphere is that of a laid back jam between friends, both players clearly enjoying their time together. Listen to Garcia’s aged vocal on “Dreadful Wind and Rain,” adding an appropriately spooky air to the song’s story. Instrumental work by both Garcia and Grisman is of a very high quality, as you’d expect from either or both of them, and their patience and playing styles complement one another nicely. Garcia’s 5-string frailing on “Sweet Sunny South” or Grisman’s work with the banjolin (a mandolin with a banjo head – a positively obnoxious instrument) on “Stealin’” are both standout performances. Detailed liner notes assist listeners in interpreting the history of each song. It’s a disc that I return to time and time again, worn out and renewed after staying on the shelf for a while. If you enjoy Shady Grove, I encourage you to enter the rabbit hole that is Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label of “100% Handmade Music,” where you’ll find plenty more of this fare to choose from.

Joe Henderson / Power to the People (1969)

This isn’t the discordant, noisy melee I expected from an album made during the earlier, exploratory phase of Joe Henderson’s career. It's fits in easily with other works of the new jazz being played in 1969 (Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc.) but the seven originals are surprisingly chill compared to Henderson’s work for the Blue Note label. On the opener “Black Narcissus,” Henderson sketches out a haunting melody, showcasing its intrinsic beauty with a reflective and provocative performance that recalls a tone poem. His voice on the tenor is unique and expressive, working in matched phrases that intertwine with the ever searching and inventive electric piano by Herbie Hancock. Improvised sections are engaging and fun to listen to, especially the suite “Foresight and Afterthought.” Therein, keep your ears peeled for a particularly gratifying eruption of emotive force, a primal ejaculation of the blues, demonstrating that this group may be playing modern jazz but they haven’t forgotten their roots. With Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, it’s probably the best rhythm section to release an album in 1969. The audio quality is superb, too, doing justice to each band member equally. I frequently find myself in the car and panning the sound to the left channel to sit with Herbie and enjoy his licks in near-isolation.

R.E.M. / Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

R.E.M. moved to London to record this, their third album. The experience of trying to write songs and produce a record while living in an unfamiliar country was quite stressful after several years of rigorous road work. They pulled together, and prevailed with a killer album to show for it. In spite of their surroundings, the album is pure Athens, Georgia. The songs range in tone from quiet, ballad-like pieces to full tilt rock and roll. Fed by the overwhelming sense of isolation, Stipe’s contributions are dark and more complex than ever. His allusive lyrics explore a variety of themes through cryptic mumblings, howls, and stuttered explosions of verbosity. The band pulls back at times, offering a lighter touch on tracks like “Wendell Gee,” a dirge concerning a crooked Athens car dealer, or the border ballad “Green Grow the Rushes.” But the comparatively placid songs are like a calm before the storm, and only foretell of things to come. The angst surges ahead in rockers like “Driver 8” and the abrasive “Life and How to Live It,” a paranoid and dissonant song inspired by an equally paranoid Georgia hermit. Sonically, the classic R.E.M. sound is present on every track: harmony vocals and refrains, jangling guitars, snappy bass lines and urgent drum licks. The soundscape is enhanced by instrumentation including banjo and strings. Overall, it’s an essential R.E.M. album, more accomplished than the debut or follow up, but missing the polish of what came after. I’m thankful for that: R.E.M sounds much better left rough around the edges.

Ween / La Cucaracha (2007)

Barring any forthcoming material, this is Ween’s final studio recording (surprised me, too. I was sure that the Weens would replace themselves with cyborgs and continue shooting barbs well into the 23rd century). It is a balanced mix of the quirky electronic music that made them famous, and the full-band sound that sustained their fanbase and live show for the better part of two decades. In typical Ween fashion, the songs hop around various themes with tongue firmly in cheek, covering everything from sex to murder to football. Between the offbeat lyrics and diabolical track sequencing, you’re sure to be laughing, feeling really cool, or just rocking out. But don’t get ahead of yourself because Gene and Deen pull tricks from the first track. I was listening to this in the car, quite loud, and, true story, I snarfled a mouthful of soda when I heard the "Fiesta" drum machine suddenly eat itself. Prank thus fulfilled, the track is terminated and things move on through all manner of mock seriousness and serious mockness, wrapping up a tidy 13 tracks later. I love the ride: It’s a mature album (ha! gotcha) and at times their mask of tom foolery seems to slip. But does it really, or am I just imagining things? Have they fooled me again? The song “Object” is one such example that seems to allude to the true feelings of a heartsick lover, only to insult my sincere interpretation with a coupling line about a block of meat, and another about a sweater. Such is Ween. It’s hardly the grand charade staged by The Residents, but they do keep you guessing. I wasn’t thrilled with La Cucaracha upon its release, probably because it sounded too much like what I expected to hear, you know, like a Ween album. Now that they’ve officially called it quits, Cucaracha is like a breath of fresh air... really stinky fresh air. I'm still holding out for a reunion, whenever Gene can get his act together, but real recovery is a steep hill and I'm happy if he takes his time. So long, fellas, and thanks for all the chocolate and cheese.