Bessie Smith/Men Are Like Streetcars
Many Classic, Some Not So Much
Bessie Smith: The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia '97)
Smith was the best-selling and best-recorded artist of so-called classic blues. She got top sidemen from her royalty-skimming a&r boss Clarence Williams‑-Armstrong, Hawkins, Henderson, Goodman, Teagarden‑-and A-shelf material by the standards of her market. But musically, she's a bigger puzzle than is admitted, and although there may be a better compilation out there, I'll settle for this even though it omits, among other standouts I'm sure, the class-conscious "Washwoman Blues," the guitar-featuring "Mean Old Bedbug Blues," the horncatting "Empty Bed Blues," and the trifling "It Makes My Love Come Down." Records certainly spread her fame with the Southern-identified black audience she proudly entertained. But they didn't come near to capturing the live charisma of a funny lady with a big ego and a bigger heart who knew how to shake her big bones. Her singing was more about shading microtones than delivering a tune or powering a groove‑-she loved medium tempos and she's sometimes, sorry, too subtle. So while blues mavens wish she would sing nothing but, I say the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "After You've Gone" is a standout here, and find she benefits in general from the cheap marginal distinction of pop material right down to "It Makes My Love Come Down," a number otherwise uncelebrated in Bessie Smith scholarship‑-unlike "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Backwater Blues," "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness," "Aggravatin' Papa," "Gimme a Pigfoot," and whatever else you justifiably believe demolishes such quibbles. A MINUS
Men Are Like Streetcars . . . Women Blues Singers 1928-1969 (MCA '99)
All but seven of these 46 choices are from the Decca, Chess, and Duke catalogs MCA controls, and that's a shame. No Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, OK‑-they cut albums' worth of classics on their own. But the absent Lil Green always deserves a plug and, come on, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" is the archetypal seminal one-shot‑-a debut single she never equalled that sparked every other side collected here. Still, sometimes a tasty mouthful is all these singers had in them (see my unpublished monograph Big Mama Thornton: Who Owes Who?), and on the first disc especially, folkie lifer Mary Katherine Aldin's picks rarely lag. Maybe they'll inspire you to seek out more Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, and Rosetta Tharpe, or maybe you'll just say thank-you-ma'am to the lost sin songs of Georgia White, Blue Lu Barker, Rosetta Howard. Second disc is easier to lose track of, so let me direct your attention to the Margie Day feature. Aldin seems a little embarrassed by this "quirky ditty." Me, my day was made by a song that begins "Take out you false teeth daddy, your mommy wants to scratch your gums." And with such lip-smacking gusto, too. A MINUS
I'm a terrible jazz writer. (In fact, the only things relevant to this blog I'm any good at writing about are songwriting and concept.) That said, I listen to the record for the interactions of the players, the way the four distinct voices on "Dream Baby Dream" (sax/Vibes/drums/vocals) interweave over eight minutes using only a single, simple melodic pattern and an apparently desultory four word vocal cliche. I haven't gotten bored on at least 10 listens.
EDIT: The band is not called "Laylow" -- that was the name of the album only. The band, which includes two of Cherry's children and a couple of others musicians, is called cirKus. They have three albums, of which I've only heard the first.
You don't hear Ornette Coleman as one of the biggest punks to ever come down the pike -- just consider his connection with bebop let alone swing -- you are missing the beatdown of the downbeat.
I did enjoy getting more of the story on Georgia's parents - I knew who they were, but only the bare bones.
Album of the day for me, though, is the "soundtrack" included with Joe Pernice's novel "It Feels So Good When I Stop." I only made it about 75 pages into the novel before losing interest (the bit where the [probably at least semi-autobiographical] narrator irritatedly explains that homophobic remarks slung between bros are perfectly fine as long as there's no homos around to hear didn't help one bit. But the album (thank you Jeff Melnick) is pretty damn lovely, all covers ranging from Del Shannon to Sebadoh to Tom T. Hall to Todd Rundgren to the prettiest of all (and a great reclamation job), "Chevy Van."
Exactly the way I think Ray Charles did -- Exile in the Promised Land.
I wish I got with this as much as other folks. I was pulling for it hard. But it never developed a personality/meeting-of-the-souls for me beyond "yep, that's Neneh Cherry singing with the Thing, alright."
I enjoyed reading the MSN article on Frank Zappa wherein his entire discography is reassessed, and I was glad to note that Hot Rats was given props as being an early jazz-rock fusion experiment - nine months before Bitches' Brew it sez. Seems like his entire catalogue is being reissued again - great time to check out Uncle Meat and Crusing with the Ruben and the Jets again.
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.