Blues With a Freshness
Piano Blues: A Film by Clint Eastwood (Columbia/Legacy '03)
Branding being a fact of musical life, title listings often cite series overseer Martin Scorsese, who only wishes he had ears like his subcontractor's. The first 16 tracks here are so historically astute‑-and skip so gracefully from instrumental to occasional vocal, from boogie-woogie to big band‑-you could almost call them, well, curated. So much of it is absolutely classic that it's kind of a shame that the last four tracks were newly recorded under Eastwood's supervision even though Dr. John co-owns "Big Chief," the Pinetop Perkins-Marcia Ball duet gives the octogenarians and the ladies some, and the other two ain't bad either. This is the record to put on when you feel like some blues but aren't in a guitar mood. "What'd I Say" and "Tipitina" it's hard to hear too many times. The Ellington-Mingus-Roach "Backward Country Boy Blues," which had passed from my mind, is almost as good. A
19 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's: Vol. 9 (Blues Images)
Since 2004 this company has released blues CDs to accompany handsome blues calendars illustrated with old ad, sleeve, and catalog pix. Showcasing the Paramount 78s proprietor John Tefteller collects, those I've heard have been good albeit patchy. This one is better‑-not perfect, but a surprising country blues and jug band anthology undiminished by eight of the rarities blues collectors dote on and normals yawn at. The three gritty Blind Joel Taggarts are pretty generic, but Lane Hardin's forbearing head voice and Jenny Pope's cutting soprano are as satisfying as anything on the record, adding a freshness even for a duffer like me. Other highlights include two Tampa Red takes on "Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here," with future gospel luminary Georgia Tom Dorsey and vaudeville wise guy Frankie Jaxon; Ora Brown's near-classic "Jinx Blues" and Ida Cox's altogether classic "Fogyism"; Harum Scarum's feet-airing "Come On In (Ain't Nobody Here)"; and a two-sided Blind Blake called "Rope Stretchin' Blues" that equals anything on his best-of. You can buy the CD alone, but at $19.95 I'd spring for the calendar package, which Tefteller warns is going fast. The calendar doubles as liner notes, for one thing. A MINUS
Childish Gambino: Culdesac (free download)
Community regular, 30 Rock writer, and stand-up phenom Donald Glover brings more skills to the rap game than any pretender in years, fellow actor Drake included. His rhymes startle and amuse, his flow bubbles and snaps, his beats always get him where he's going, and on the expert pop song "Got This Money" he hits the high notes on his own. One reason hip-hop has no use for him is that high notes are his thing‑-delivering his rent-a-hook, Lil Jon sounds gangsta on comparative timbre alone. Another is that he didn't buy his $10,000 jacket by dealing rock or fronting about it over beats he bought too. "Welcome to the culdesac this is where the street ends," he taunts, and out of the great goodness of his heart he spent years giving records away and then touring behind them. Right, he's too keen on proving something even if all the success and sexcess stories are true. That's why I like him best when I'm surest he's lying, which is on that pop song: "I wanna feel you for real." A MINUS
Childish Gambino: Camp (Glassnote)
His seventh hip-hop longform‑- including the 2011 EP and two mixtapes where he rhymes inconclusively over indie-rock loops‑-is his most official, on quality bizzer Daniel Glass's indie label. Unified by choral and orchestral movie music for "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert," it's less surefire than Culdesac. But it's more satisfying emotionally, because the autobiography reaches deep: "My dad works nights, puttin' on a stone face/He's savin' up so we can get our own place/In the projects, man, that sound fancy to me/They call me fat-nose my mom say, `You handsome to me'." Nevertheless, this black kid who got called "faggot" plenty‑-only "spell it right/I got way more than two G's"‑-still wants to make sure you know how much he gets laid. Fact is, in a textbook case of nerd-gets-famous syndrome, he almost certainly gets laid too much. But later for that. Master of the alphabet though he long has been, his big message is that work comes before women. A MINUS
Pimps 'n Wimps‑-Not
"I ain't rap about dope nor do I sell it," raps a Mississippi "country boy" who's more mixed about pimping‑-maybe unreadable, maybe of two minds, maybe blurring the pimp sound and the pimp hustle. The sound he's definitely got down: a rich, comfortable funk he transports south from Willie Hutch's The Mack. And as befits someone who believes N.I.G.G.E.R. stands for "Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism" and gets life satisfaction from rotating his tires, his sound equals his hustle. Some may think his rhymes are too simple. I find "Some thangs are forever, nothin' ever last/Like the risin' of the sun or when Big Mama pass" pretty deep myself. B PLUS
Childish Gambino: EP (free download)
"Set the game ablaze I'm an arcade fire," Cheezy boasts, but because he "don't wanna be alone," he joins a clique of "freaks and geeks" where he's "down with the black girls of every single culture/Filipino, Armenian girls on my sofa," only they're not thick enough, so he'll "make music for wack blacks to blast back" until he finds "a small chick with a fat ass" ready to "make out with a Gap ad" who's "not a thug a/k/a what they pretend to be." Of course, the Gap ad in question isn't exactly a geek anymore. He's a stand-up comedian bringing intelligent rap to the masses, one one-liner at a time. B PLUS
Good Old Rock and Roll, 2011 Style
Musically, this is pop without shame‑-her hookiest and most dance-targeted album, decorated with a thoughtful assortment of suitably titillating blats, noodles, dubs, groans, hiccups, boom-booms, cut-ups, speed-ups, xx samples, and spoken-word bits. Lyrically, it celebrates the relationship of sex to love rather than pain, dipping predictably on the heart songs and theme statements that slow down the second half, especially on the standard edition. Associating carnality with love as I do, I prefer it to her earlier albums because I find its many porny moments titillating. Sure Beyoncé is sexier in principle‑-I like smart girls, not bad girls, especially bad girls with a thing for worse men. But I believe in taking my titillation wherever it raises its spongy head. A MINUS
David Guetta: Nothing but the Beat (Astralwerks/Capitol)
In which the Frenchman who inflicted the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" on a hapless America‑-brute! vulgarian! snailsucker! 'ho!‑-bids for chart success as if he needs to be more famous than he already is. All power synths and squirmy earworms, dated beats and neutered Snoop Dogg, it offends club sophisticates no less than living-room discophobes. But with four-on-the-floor dance music the nearest the actually popular pop world came to mindless rocking out in 2011, I only wish it had a few "I Gotta Feeling"s. Still, the two Nicki Minaj features come close, Taio Cruz does what he's sposed to for once, the will.i.am preachment makes its escapist statement, and neutering Snoop is fine with both me and the ASPCA. Front-loaded in this 13-track Americanski version--as a reward for their sophistication, the Europeans get to fatten up on excess instrumentals--it should slim down further by ditching the last two tracks and climaxing with the Jennifer Hudson love anthem "Night of Your Life," where it simulates the soul that elsewhere is so beside the point. B PLUS
Oldies but Goodies, Pained and Jocose
This introduction to Dominican son was "recorded live to 2-track," sniffs the same label's co-released Bachata Legends, in which the original artists re-record decades-old classics smoothly and even beautifully but seldom enthrallingly. What the original vocals lacked in accomplished ease they made up and then some in quirky intensity, and they weren't anything like amateurish. With more at stake professionally and personally, these young singers grabbed onto the "bitterness" at the heart of their barrio-bohemian genre so as to dramatize not only the pain of thwarted love but the hunger for public identity that eats at a people after half a century of tyranny. Sometimes it's almost like they're crying. A MINUS
Vijana Jazz Band: The Koka Koka Sex Battalion: Rumba, Koka Koka & Kamata Sukuma: Music From Tanzania 1975-1980 (Sterns)
One band with two names so it could record over quota when it managed the journey to the studio in Nairobi, Vijana Jazz Band and its Koka Koka Sex Battalion doppelganger favored the typical East African iteration of soukous's rippling guitars. Sometimes this approach is compared to country music, but that's a metaphor, not a musical analogy‑-these guys aren't true soloists, and rarely is Nashville guitar so ramshackle. In East African rumba, guitars provide atmosphere more than content. The content's in the jocosely hectoring vocals and single-line saxophone interjections, which with this enjoyable little band are numerous and various enough to engage non-Swahili speakers who find some of the melodies warm and others tepid. B PLUS
Scott Miller: Christmas Gift (F.A.Y.)
Easy once he thought of it, right? Appalachia-oriented American and Russian history degree holder Miller picks 'em (guitar-banjo "Ode to Joy," harmonica-piano "Holy, Holy, Holy") and picks 'em (John Prine's beloved "Christmas in Prison," Roger Miller's forgotten "Old Toy Trains"). Writes one, too‑-his very own "Yes, Virginia," about how there is a Santa Claus, and there are also lots of relatives. These are both good things as far as he's concerned. And for the duration of an EP, they are. A MINUS
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks: Crazy for Christmas (Surfdog)
Crazy because he's always been pleasantly nuts, but also because he's crazy not just as a result of but about Christmas, which as all Christmas fans know is a combination with a shot at making the holiday as full of good cheer as it's supposed to be. Scatting "Here Comes Santa Claus" as one retro strategy among many, Hicks lays out an "Old Fashioned Christmas" complete with "Bethlehem scene on the lawn/And a picture of Rudolph in the john" as the elves in "Santa's Workshop" paint millions of wooden boats and planes. Remember wood? This is a good-humored sixtysomething who wants to teach his grandkids the old-timey verities. Then he'll take a nap. B PLUS
The 12 Shopping Days Till Christmas
Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits (1955-Present) (Rhino '89)
"Present" was a misrepresentation even in 1989‑-nine of these 10 songs in 27 minutes were hits between 1956 and 1964, and will presumably mean more to those who were young back then. I was, and I play this record with pleasure every "holiday season," cough cough. Between the mildly defiant rock and roll compromises of Bobby Helms and Brenda Lee, the kiddie novelties proved durable even though you never liked the Chipmunks and never heard of Barry Gordon, the Drifters' alternative "White Christmas," Charles Brown and Elvis Presley sexing it up, and the secular piety of the Harrys Simeon and Belafonte, it's a testimony to pop culture's eternal need to put mildly untraditional twists on the holy holy holy (and why the hell wasn't there a "Twistin' Santa"?). Then there's the capper and chronological ringer, Elmo 'n Patsy's 1983 smash "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"‑-a cornily deadpan, cheerfully macabre tall tale that will have romantics idealizing the old weird America for as long as Christmas is commercialized. A
Wee Hairy Beasties: Holidays Gone Crazy (Wee Beatz '08)
Kiddie music risks ick even when a curmudgeon like Jon Langford is cleaning the snot off its nose‑-cf. too much of 2006's Animal Crackers (although not "I'm an A.N.T," sung to the tune of Muddy Waters's "I'm a Man"). My theory is that by the time of this follow-up, he had a kid old enough to ask, "Hey Dad, what's that little arm sticking out of your bellybutton‑-looks like there's a little man . . . " There is, and he's "not known for his liberal views," unlike Rick Cookin' Sherry, whose interjected P.S.A.'s warn of the dangers of shoveling snow and eating your vegetables‑-dangers that pale before those of "Dinosaur Christmas": "Wrapped up in her stocking/There's a human for a pet." That Langford‑-always with the sense of history. A MINUS
By Nadya & Bob Gruen (MVDvisual)
"You had to see them live," say people trying to explain why everyone doesn't love the New York Dolls. I've always thought this was bushwa myself. The Dolls put out two great, enduring albums on Mercury in the '70s‑-New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon‑-and more than three decades later followed with an even more unlikely masterpiece: 2006's prophetically entitled One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. Many people love these albums without benefit of live exposure, and as someone who saw them many times between 1972 and 1975, I have dutifully checked out club recordings of varying legitimacy without finding one I played again after the pan was finished. Yet I do know several converts who went back to the Mercurys after the reunion shows of the '00s: David Johansen and Syl Sylvain plus sidemen, the other three having died by then. So if you've never gotten the Dolls, maybe you should give this DVD a try.
And if you're a fan, you definitely should, because unlike those lousy club tapes this document does convey aspects of the Dolls' magic during their brief heyday that the studio albums hint at indirectly if at all. Don't expect crystalline sound or snazzy visuals from this footage, which was shot in blurry black-and-white on portable video cameras by ace rock photographer and passionate Dolls fan Bob Gruen and his wife Nadia Beck. But augmented by offstage business and a few interviews, including one by ace rock reporter and passionate Dolls fan Lisa Robinson, it reminded me and my date from back then of just how vital and unprecedented this band was. Johnny Thunders, whose junkie years falling off the stage on the beat with the Heartbreakers left quite an impression, is especially heartbreaking: neither tall nor a muscleman, he exudes the confidence that comes with a naturally sculpted torso, healthy skin tone, and Roman-schnozzed good looks. What happened to his pre-Dolls band? "They kicked me out because I was a creep."
The Dolls, of course, made being a creep an art form. Says their most experienced musician, drummer Jerry Nolan: "I've been playing so long and I never advanced. That's why I'm with these guys." The polka-dotted Sylvain represents for "good old Queens." Arthur Kane, a big geeky guy wearing sunglasses approximately the size of his head, speaks of his dreams in a faint lisp. And Johansen camps it up shamelessly even if he stole some of his moves from Mick Jagger. With glam still mostly a rumor, the Dolls wave hippiedom goodbye by accentuating genuine gender ambiguity at a moment when mere long hair was identified with Samson, Tecumseh, and Robert Plant. Yet the crowd up front is dominated by the same kind of girls-gone-wild blondes who regularly show up on individual Dolls' arms.
The greatest secret of Lookin' Fine on Television is that the Gruens were such fans, and as such shot so many shows they easily avoided the built-in tedium of live video. Instead of cutting to closeups of the guitarist's deft fingerwork and the drummer's ferocious barrage, ha ha ha, they cut to other performances of the same song. The sound being what it is, you can sometimes detect lip-synching anomalies, but not often‑-Johansen was unpredictable, but he knew what he was doing. Instead what you get is the wittiest clothes sense in pop history. All of them had a knack for costume‑-Sylvain now designs accessories professionally. But Johansen is the focus for good reason. By my count, which may be compromised by the soft focus and by Johansen's tendency to doff and don hats and such while performing, the Gruens meld eight different performances into the opening "Lookin' for a Kiss," during which Johansen wears black training bra over slim-cut pants, gray Edwardian jacket, illustrated glitter jacket, fur-and-glitter jacket, top hat with white coat-and-tails, tailored black jacket with ruffled shirt, broad suspenders over white shirt, and tight white top. Later come shirtless-with-bowtie, shirtless-with-dickie, shirtless-with-suspenders, shirtless-with-painter-pants, sailor cap with short black jacket, vertical-striped shirt-and-pants, sheer red (I'm guessing) wet-look shirt, cowboy hat with bandanna, Marilyn T, pearl choker.
Farewell to hippiedom indeed. Now do you see why it was so much fun to see them? There are 14 songs all told here, and they're great too. But for them you can buy the albums.
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.