That bad man, that cool Stagger Lee
Lloyd Price: Greatest Hits (MCA '94) There's nothing like this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from the Big Easy. Now 80 and pushing an autobiography and a Broadway musical based on same, he knows how to take care of business‑-he's a rough hombre who owned a nightclub and a label in Manhattan before he was 40. But he doesn't sing like a rough hombre. He sings like he's taking care of business, which is why he followed 1959's chart-topping "Stagger Lee" with two lyrics so insipid they could do battle with Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell: "Personality" and "I'm Gonna Get Married." And never was he more cheerfully pragmatic than in the 2:25 "Stagger Lee" itself, which remains a fairly grisly murder tale, but one in which the femme chorus that's been chanting "Go Stagger Lee" since 0:45 continues to cheer Stack on as he fetches his .44 and shoots Billy so bad he breaks the bartender's glass. Call me a cynic, but I think it's one of the funniest records in rock and roll. It leads this hard-to-find 18-track package. It also leads the now standard 12-track, 28-minute The Best of Lloyd Price: The Millennium Collection, where I miss, among other things, "That's Love," a/k/a "I Got Married and Liked It," and "Three Little Pigs," designed for what he thinks marriage was designed for, and I don't mean conjugal ecstasy. I mean kids. A MINUS
Lloyd Price: Specialty Profiles (Specialty '06)
Price was the biggest, roughest shouter in New Orleans r&b, and gumbo aficionados will tell you it was a tragedy when those bad Northerners stole him away. Price didn't agree, and I know what he means. Even honed down to 14 tracks in 36 minutes over Dave Bartholomew's ace band, his Specialty material is so unthinkingly generic that few of the songs distinguish themselves even as novelties. In addition to Price's signature "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," which I like no less and also no more in this lowdown version than as the sub-two-minute rocker ABC-Paramount made of it, my best candidate would be the accurately entitled "Oo-Ee Baby," which no one has ever heard of because it ain't all that novel. Nevertheless, this is pretty entertaining for a historical document, and it's augmented by the label's generic 26-minute bonus disc, which you'll probably play more: 10 r&b classics that include Roy Milton's "R.M. Blues," Joe Liggins's "Pink Champagne," Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do," Don & Dewey's "Leavin' It All Up to You," and Larry Williams's "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy." B PLUS
N.B.: I know members of the two most obscure young acts here (and so may be underrating them)
The Pozniaks: Pozniak Street (Jamrag)
Hooky pop cheer fails to modulate unbearable falsetto anxiety ("I Think I'd Like You Better if I Loved You," "I Heard It Was a Beautiful Party") ***
Ezra Furman & the Harpoons: Mysterious Power (Minty Fresh '11)
Complete with guitar band and harmonica, throwback chronicles teenage wasteland and America the not so beautiful ("I Killed Myself but I Didn't Die," "Teenage Wasteland") ***
The Child of Lov: The Child of Lov (Domino)
Bedroom soul, as in where this homespun illbient funk is made‑-the lov's made in the mind of the funkateer ("Give Me," "Owl") ***
Crazy & the Brains: Let Me Go (Baldy Longhair)
Jolly garage punks prove how heedless they are by adding xylophone ("Saturday Night Live," "Beach Bug") **
Kreayshawn: Somethin 'Bout Kreay (Columbia)
Netwise trope-tweaking at its best worst ("Blasé Blasé," "Go Hard [La.La.La]") **
Land of Pines: The Long Defeat 12" EP (Fin)
Crunch and chime, groove and tune, baritone and soprano, elegiac and skeptical, but not dynamite songs, not yet ("Cave Painting," "Dead Feathers") *
Billy Hough & the X-Loves: Venice (Garagedog)
Kissoff jokes so nasty he probably deserved a worse breakup than he got ("Venice," "She's Not Coming Over") *
Wavves: Afraid of Heights (Mom + Pop)
Like Ben Folds‑-although he's punker than Ben Folds (as is Max Martin)‑-Nathan Williams proves that a talent for tunes does nothing for one's annoying personality ("Demon to Lean On," "Afraid of Heights") *
Deep from the heart of Texas
Sam Baker: Say Grace (self-released)
"Say Grace" itself leads, as well-limned a miniature as he's ever recorded, and he's got a bunch. One of many divorcees he's paid his respects, this woman is better off than the orphan who's not an orphan on Pretty World, to say nothing of "Migrants"'s 14 dead with 12 lines in the paper to show for it. But still‑-there's a hole in her robe, she falls asleep to the TV, and she still hears her mother saying "don't give me that face any more." Baker's voice is no prettier, but his music is less rough-hewn‑-here cello, brushes, and Leonard Cohen harmonies, there Gurf Morlix's blues-tango guitar. And the literary ambitions are out front‑-the way "feast" rhymes with "rough beast," the Emily Dickinson quote he sneaks into "Road Crew," the Jimmy Cagney mythos that falls flat as such ideas sometimes do. The third-happiest song is "Ditch": "My crazy-ass wife/nutty as her brother/supposed to marry rich/according to her mother." Second-happiest is "Isn't Love Grand," about a gimpy schoolteacher and her fat husband wearing fishnet and leather when the boys are off at his mother's. The happiest is "Button by Button." Baker does literally believe it's a gift from God when a woman takes off her clothes. A MINUS
James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards: Live in Aught-Three (Compadre '04)
Last time I saw him he was switching off on six guitars, none of which he played with much verve‑-it was more like they were place holders, delaying tactics, a way through a 90-minute set, proof he wasn't just a writer. But though he does plod here, he also showcases his best early tunes, as a plodder had better. These are more likely attached to sardonically Dylanesque tales of personal inadequacy than to the sociopolitical extended metaphors and local-color narratives that came to the fore as of "We Can't Make It Here." But spurred by a Chuck Berry riff, it's the nine-minute meth-industry saga "Choctaw Bingo" that puts the set in gear, with "60 Acres," "Out Here in the Middle," and "Levelland" riding the same highway. That last one is dedicated to Max Crawford, identified as a member of the American Workers Party: "Max was a communist, so he didn't fit in too good in Floydada." James is a guy who prides himself on getting around. A MINUS
Sam Baker: Mercy (Music Road '04)
He's an Austin-based singer-songwriter who'll be coming back for the rest of his life from near-death in a 1986 Shining Path bombing. Deafer than not, he also relearned guitar with his left hand, so it would be presumptuous in the extreme to dismiss his quiet, putatively unfinished music as any kind of affectation‑-John Prine imitator, some might say. Around the middle, the mercy here risks bathos because the sad mood is so unvarying, but soon it rights itself. My two favorites honor marriages, one ended in its natural time by death, the other saved before it's too late by near-death. I also recommend the quiet antiwar tract where the husband gets a kiss for bringing his wife a Coke at the Little League game. And the one about Peru. B PLUS
Sam Baker: Pretty World (Music Road '07)
A lot of songs get sung on this record‑-"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Jacob's Ladder," Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die," and only on that last one does Baker decline to borrow the melody for a spell, thus taking some of the pressure off his own. He leaves Texas to consult a Pakistani psychic on the Lower East side. He chronicles a rich kid who gets away with killing a girl in an auto accident he spends the rest of his life drinking about. He relives Machu Picchu once again. And in crucial songs of thanks, he watches his beloved undo her top and needs two languages to celebrate a Christmas calmer than Robert Earl Keen's and happier than anything James McMurtry's likely to tell the world about. A MINUS
Southern businessmen find artistic fulfillment in their middle years
Clay Harper: Old Airport Road (Terminus)
In which the Atlanta restaurateur and one-time Coolie hires a female rapper, a blueswoman, an Arabic-singing massage therapist, and Colonel Bruce Hampton to deliver "beautiful songs with a despairing look at the world." In 1986 I called the Coolies "a glaring example of the postmodernist dictum that art about art is boring but junk about kitsch isn't," but although it could be said that all the guests add up to a single distancing technique, they're really there to furnish a fullness of feeling, different in each case, that Harper knows his own vocals aren't up to. Over just half a song, the massage therapist is the show-stopper. But for a restaurateur to let a rapper rhyme the praises of Red Lobster is a sure sign that he's grown in spirit. A MINUS
Superchunk: I Hate Music (Merge)
I believe that what had Mac McCaughan sounding so elated on Majesty Shredding was the excitement of having finally learned how to make an album worthy of his myth. So it's only natural that this is less of the same, and that in "Void" and "Staying Home" early on he's as bummed as a good grunge visionary should be. Not that bummed isn't a valid feeling appropriately expressed. But its validity is put in context by what comes right in the middle: "Trees of Barcelona," about the euphoria of sharing a rock festival in the capital of international bohemia. That's the Merge co-founder's life. Give him credit for knowing it's been a lucky one. A MINUS
Ornette Coleman: Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street (BGP/Flying Dutchman)
The Prestige Legacy, Vol. 1: The High Priests (Prestige '00)
Here's an opportunistic little comp I grab when Carola feels like "some jazz." It's a time capsule of how the music was recorded 50 or 60 years ago, with plenty of care and not much conceptual panache. Four tracks apiece to leaders Davis and Coltrane, three to Rollins, five to Monk, and for me it's Monk who's something like a ringer, first because three of his lack saxophone, as does only one of the Davises, and second because this was his classic era. Not so with Davis, better on Columbia, or Coltrane, better on Impulse or Atlantic‑-both of them sorcerers' apprentices, playing with a youthful ease soon to be honed into singular command but in this context more redolent of the great culture that made their genius possible. And none of Rollins's three, my favorite of which honors a Victor Herbert tune, are on either Silver City or his single-disc Prestige best-of. Also scattered about are ace sax cameos by two sidemen: Charlie Parker, meet Davey Schildkraut. A MINUS
They ain't no joke
Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc-a-Fella)
After too many plays, this holding action won me over. Deeper than catchy, Timbaland's music is the precondition on an album that pits Basquiat against Blue‑-black man as artistic rebel versus black man as family stalwart. But the breakthrough only came when I started grinning every time I heard him advise his daughter regarding the Basquiat in his kitchen: "Lean on the shit, Blue, you own it." And though later he swears, "I love my niggas more than my own blood," nowhere is black more beautiful than in the person of his own wife: "Sleep every night with Mona Lisa/The modern version with better features." In short, family wins both times. Give it up to the one where Beyonce pledges gangsta devotion and, best of all, the one where the would-be billionaire looks back at the betrayals of his own departed head of family with something that feels like dread. B PLUS
The Lonely Island: The Wack Album (Republic)
Struggling for cred as aging rappers will, they stumble occasionally. Some of these ideas obviously seemed funnier when they brainstormed them‑-the Bloomberg rap that could be any cartoon mayor's, the incomprehensible "Spell It Out," the flat conceit of not giving a "honk"‑-and many come down well on the amusing side of hilarious. But most are amusing, and a few‑-the Robyn-fueled dance instructions of "Go Kindergarten," the manly boasts of "Diaper Money," the you-only-live-once-(so-watch-it) advisory that builds to "Two words about furniture: killing machines"‑-are as inspired as anything on Incredibad, where they wouldn't have fit because the rappers were younger then. Best DVD extra: the gay marriage-themed "Spring Break Anthem." B PLUS
By Rob Sheffield/It Books/2013
Rob Sheffield's bestselling 2007 Love Is a Mix Tape was his farewell song to his adored wife Renee Crist, dead of an embolism in under a minute in May 1997 with her helpless husband calling 911 at her side. They were both 31. It's one of the few books I've ever read while crying, and although in late 2006 Sheffield remarried, I figured it wasn't so much wise as sane for him to sidestep that complex event and instead follow up with Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, a musical prequel that takes place in the '80s. But now it appears that that wasn't sanity, it was patience, something he's good at. Turn Around Bright Eyes is a fond and funny reflection on his second marriage‑-not a happy ending, because nothing's ended, but a work in progress.
Sheffield has been a Rolling Stone reviewer and culture columnist for over a decade now, and what's doubly remarkable about both marriage memoirs is that they're also rock criticism. Love Is a Mix Tape chronicles indie-rock, the music he and Renee were so passionate about they kept making each other the mixtapes that keynote each chapter. Turn Around Bright Eyes celebrates a musical form that has obsessed both Sheffield and his wife Ally for the entire decade or so they've been together: karaoke.
We'll get to karaoke, I promise. But karaoke is not why people should read this book. No doubt too-much-information sophisticates will think, and perhaps write, "Your wife died in your arms. That's a genuine trauma‑-you're excused on that one. But don't let it go to your head. Now you say you love her replacement just as much? Have you no decency, sir?" Which is baloney. Sheffield has a great theme here. He thought his life had come to an end, and for years it did as his career blossomed. That he passed through this denouement to find love again on the other side neither diminishes the trauma nor merits a sophisticated yawn. It's a miracle of luck and struggle we should be glad and impressed he has the stuff to put into words‑-tender, grateful, thoughtful, self-mocking, sane, wise words.
As Sheffield knows full well, his first marriage was a bumbling novice's, his second a bumbling veteran's. But though the gain in maturity plus the trauma in between is certainly one reason the two are different, the main one is that the women are different. This isn't necessarily what you'd expect‑-maybe he's one of those guys who has a type. But he isn't. And this male human who believes he's a better husband than boyfriend found he could love each of these female human beings deeply, unreservedly, and for herself alone.
I can't speak to what these two different women have in common, although I bet there's more information there than Sheffield chooses to divulge‑-decency is not his problem. But for sure there's one thing. Both loved and love music with a passion pretty much equal to his own. So of course a guy who learned to love Duran Duran by talking to girls is now discovering unsuspected dimensions in the goth-pop Ally loves. More unexpected are the well-woven remains of a misfired rock fantasy camp feature and some dazzling explication de texte on the romantic sensitivity of "She Loves You" that leads to the reasonable conclusion: "John and Paul formed new bands with their wives, and made records where they invited their wives to sing. No other rock stars ever made such a big deal about loving their wives."
Which brings us, yes it does, to karaoke. Rob and and his astrophysicist honey love karaoke. They go out singing every chance they get. Me, I have no interest in karaoke, but also nothing against it. As musical democracy it definitely has something going‑-among other things, a collectively created alternative version of pop. And insofar as karaoke is the kingdom of schlock I can get with‑-"Don't Stop Believin'," "Livin' on a Prayer," lesser Rod Stewart, and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"‑-it's fun to read about. So I found most of the sizable chunks devoted to Sheffield's thoughts on this democracy engaging as both history and criticism. But toward the end Sheffield devotes a full chapter apiece to what I guess he considers the reigning triumvirate: Neil Diamond, Rush, and David Bowie‑-Bowie the horrible singer as opposed to Bowie the shape shifter who kept it interesting till Let's Dance. Not only was I unconvinced of their majesty, I found myself uninterested‑-even, occasionally, nauseous. I would much rather have learned something about, say, Ally's cooking. Or, more likely, Rob's.
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.
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