The Staple Singers
A Paterfamilias Named Pops
The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Columbia/Legacy '91)
The genius of this one-of-a-kind family pop-gospel ensemble was guitarist-vocalist-patriarch Pops. Roebuck, as his mama called him, grew up on Dockery's Plantation in the Delta and heard the likes of Charley Patton and Howlin' Wolf many Saturdays in Clarksdale. But though his guitar always had more John Hurt than Rosetta Tharpe in it, blues was not his calling. Married by the time he migrated to Chicago in 1935, he worked hard jobs and moonlighted at music before gathering progeny Pervis, Yvonne, Cleotha, and Mavis Staples into a group in 1948. The Staples' mastery of gospel's old-time virtuosic melodrama is impressively documented on the 1956-61 Best of the Vee-Jay Years. But sensing a more expansive audience and aesthetic in the folk movement, Pops conceived the Milestone sessions on Great Day as the civil rights movement heated up between 1962 and 1964. Then the Staples moved on up to Epic and peaked. Vocals and guitar serving the song more than on Vee-Jay, tempos faster and steadier than on Milestone, they cheered up a mass movement with the certified classics it deserved: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Wade in the Water," "Samson and Delilah," "This Train," and also "For What It's Worth." Mavis's growl provided essential bravura. But Pops's gentle baritone led structurally and defined the mood. A
The Staple Singers: Stax Profiles (Stax '06)
On any Stax-Staples best-of there will be three indisputable masterpieces: "Respect Yourself, "I'll Take You There," and above all "Heavy Makes You Happy," composed by those great old soul men Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom. Sure some of the also-rans are better than others, among them two of the three tracks here that aren't on the more official-looking Best of the Staple Singers: the family-tied "Everyday People" and the Movement-themed "Long Walk to D.C." But even on perfectly enjoyable filler like "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend" and "You've Got to Earn It," you can hear the Stax machine groaning with the effort of squeezing Mavis's intrinsic grit and moral intelligence into a soul stardom she never altogether got the hang of and a contemporaneity by then better pursued with Willie Mitchell just a mile away. A MINUS
This wraps up my comments on the meaning of songs, though it has a little bit to do with politics.
One great beauty of songs is that you don't have to choose between sound and sense. Several times a year I recommend albums to an audience with zilch chance of understanding the words. But if the lyrics do connect -- and connect in the manner of a Dylan or Malkmus as well as a Steve Earl -- then that's a plus.
And it can matter a great deal how you feel about a song. My recent example would be Mary Hopkin's "Those Were the Days." It was a song I heard as a Top 5 hit in high school, through tinny radio speakers or in the background at the swimming pool. It was distant enough that for ages I thought it was not only produced but written by Paul McCartney.
Also, in 1968, any tune that yearned for the old days, seemed to lament lost youth and suchlike came across in an atmosphere of rebuke to current times of longhairs, rock riot and culture upheaval. So I thought the tune was reactionary, sentimental, or at best tight-lipped warning that the dreams of youth give way to the realism of age.
Hopkin went on to marry glitter producer Tony Visconti, remain close to a Wun Hit Wunder and stay well off my screen for decades.
Then, late last year, I started checking out the remastered Apple Records Box and of course the best-of disc led off with "Those Were the Days," the nostalgia-mongering hooey I thought it was.
But now I could sit down and listen to the song clearly. And while I wish somebody could give me a definitive translation of the title of the traditional Russian tune it's based on (is it "Dear For Me" or "By the Long Road" or what?) I realized, "yikes, I've got this number all wrong. It's an affirmation of youth and ideals -- just because the good times ended and things didn't work out as we would wish doesn't mean we were wrong. Or should regret anything. Indeed, the ideals live on in our souls."
So, Mary Hopkin and English-lyric-writer Gene Raskin -- I was sellin' ya short. Songwriter Boris Fomin -- yer still gettin' screwed.
And on the music end, yeah, I can now also hear the klezmer-like elements that went right past back in the day.
Zé does not seem to have recorded again until 1992’s Hips of Tradition. He has a parallel recording career to the American releases since then that I have not yet delved into deeply. Among his early albums I’d rank them:
1. Todos os Olhos
2. Estudando O Samba
3. Correio da Estação do Brás
4. Se O Caso E Chorar
5. Grande Liquidacao
6. Nave Maria
7. Tom Zé
1-4 are all recommended (I consider 1 and 2 and maybe 3 classics), and fortunately they are available digitally on two-fer packages. Even better, I hope you will agree, is my best effort at synthesizing all of this music into a single disc. I’ve intentionally omitted anything from the Luaka Bop reissue and have tried to create a more faithful sense of what Zé sounded like before his rediscovery. I like that this sounds less “downtown” than Byrne wants him to be. This shines a light on the “other side” of Zé that is, in my opinion, equally masterful and deserving of attention.
Here you go: http://goo.gl/5CmuS
Se Estudando O Samba
Dor e Dor Se O Caso É Chorar
Neném Gravidez Nave Maria
Jeitinho Dela 20 Preferidas
Todos os Olhos Todos os Olhos
Quando Eu Era Sem Ninguém Todos os Olhos
Quero Sambar Grande Liquidação
O Riso e a Faca 20 Preferidas
Pecado Original Correio Da Estacao Do Bras
Brigitte Bardot Todos os Olhos
A Briga do Edifício Itália com o Hilton Hotel Se O Caso É Chorar
O Sândalo Se O Caso É Chorar
A Volta de Xanduzinha ( Maria Mariô ) Correio Da Estacao Do Bras
Botaram Tanta Fumaça Todos os Olhos
Lá Vem Cuíca Correio Da Estacao Do Bras
A Babá Se O Caso É Chorar
Acalanto Nuclear Nave Maria
Hope everyone is having the rock n roll summer they always imagined possible.
If any of you are in the New York area...
next week Low Cut Connie is doing a 3 show stint in Gotham City.
Come for ear-titillation and sweat glandulation.
Sat. aug 6th, 9pm - Bar 4, Brooklyn
Wed. aug 10th, 7pm sharp - Living Room, LES manhattan
Sat aug 13th, 9pm - Bar 4, Brooklyn
Brazil Project Part 3: Tom Zé. Given all the excitement about Zé’s NYC show, I thought it would be timely to share this now.
I think I’ve now listened to the vast majority (if not all) of Tom Zé’s recording under his own name prior to the Luaka Bop era. I’ve already mentioned Zé’s contributions to the Tropicalia movement and I’ve pointed out that his (I think) first album, Grande Liquidacao, displays a lot of manic intensity, but ultimately wears a bit on the ears.
After that, I’m not sure what happened with Zé but his next move was a retreat. Tom Zé, released in 1970 (and included almost en totale on a quirky reissue called 20 Preferides, along with some key singles and part of the much later Nave Maria) lacks both personality and spunk. Zé was obviously still up to something, because key singles during this period (including the prescient “Jimmy, Rende-Se” from 1971, included on the Soul Jazz Tropicalia comp) explore crazy rhythms galore. The album itself, not so much.
The next one, another Tom Zé album later reissued as Se O Caso E Chorar (1972), is a major step toward the exploration of big musical ideas that dominated later era Zé recordings. “Jimmy Rende-Se” is revisited here as “Dor e Dor”, not the first or last time Zé has had the good sense to repeat a great riff, in this case a headhunting b****. The record only occasionally hits such heights elsewhere, but it has a delightfully whimsical groove throughout and this is the first indication that Zé is a major artist in the making.
Todos os Olhos is something else. In addition to having what may be the greatest cover art of all time, this is where Zé writes his own rules. Some of the ideas here are so great that he’ll reuse them decades later. A collision and synthesis of Brazilian music styles. A musical food court. David Byrne would take several songs off this album for his Zé compilation, but the whole thing has to be heard. This is an album to fall in love with, Zé’s first masterpiece.
The next step from here was Zé’s first homage, Estudando O Samba, which was essentially reissued in toto on the Byrne comp. Gorgeous from beginning to end, I’m not sure now why it needed to be messed with. This is the Tom Zé statement of purpose—synthetic of old and new, creative and respectful. It’s staggering to think that almost all of the first Zé Luaka Bop record was released on this single album in 1976.
1978 saw the release of Correio da Estação do Brás. At one level a step back in the direction of understatement, classics like “La Vem Cuica” are comfort food for the ear. I love that Zé doesn’t seem to be trying so hard here.
Finally, in 1984, Zé released Nave Maria. The MTV keybs datestamp the album, which explores many themes that are revisited on The Hips of Tradition. But let’s admit it, either time or David Byrne had a lot to do with the genius of Hips. There is a cloying nature to Nave Maria that is hard to get beyond, as great as some of the songs are.
Google blogger has pulled the plug on the terrific africangospelchurch blog.
This has been a superb year for reissues.
My Top 10 Reissues, so far, include:
1. The Plastic People of the Universe: Magical Nights (Munster '10)
2. Tom Ze': Making Sense of Tom Ze' (Cam Patterson Joint download)
3. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Tell My Sister (Nonesuch)
4. King Oliver: Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Off the Record '06)
5. Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection (Columbia)
6. Jon Langford: Skull Orchard Revisited (Verse Chorus Press '10)
7. Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966 (Phil Spector/Legacy)
8. Archers of Loaf: Icky Mettle (Merge)
9. The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Columbia/Legacy '91)
10. Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (Rhino '92)
One novel I did read and never hear anyone talk about is Tom Carson's Gilligan's Wake. Sometimes I feel like we're the same person living in slightly discontinuous universes, close enough that he can sometimes write out of my subconscious. But he did really get snookered by Bob Dole, who remains in my mind the fount of all things evil in the Kansas Republican Party. (I do credit Dole with one good joke: facing a picture of Ford, Carter, and Nixon, he said: "see no evil, hear no evil, and evil.")
The question I have is whether "LIfe on Mars" is about alienation when Barbara Streisand is singing it.Is that similar to -- Is "Sail Away" about racism when Linda Ronstadt sings it?
This may go nowhere, but at least I'll have thrown it out there and articulated it for myself. The (feeble) hook is Pops Staples skill at showing a performer doesn't have to be a patsy or a victim in the music industry.
The big question is: did the music industry "commit suicide" over the last 15-20 years? How many of the widely reported mistakes were real or fabrication/exaggerations?
This is going to be off the top of my head, so light on stats and data specifics, which I invite anybody to add or correct.
Seems to me that, as a whole, the "music industry" (heavy-hitter labels as a group in some combination with RIAA) committed only two outrageous screw-ups. The first as gratuitous as it gets, the second justified with only a brutish logic.
The first was "Home Taping Is Killing Music." Nobody believed this. Blatant power/revenue grab by an industry blinded by up-up-up sales and greed. Generated an ocean of animosity flowing over a rich bedrock of distrust and mockery.
The second foul-up was savage lawsuits against individual downloaders without clear pirate-industry associations. Yeah, yeah -- send a harsh message. Send a lot harsher PR storm.
The other "mistakes" are more ambiguous.
Eliminating CD-singles was stupid.
Still, the notion that most albums where "just a couple tracks you really wanted and you were forced to buy the whole, larded-with-crap CD" has always struck me as self-serving hooey. It's a justification for robbery. I never heard any shortage in full-enjoyment new CDs.
CDs were rip-offs.
Yeah, they could have handled this better. The early high prices should have come down convincingly close to LPs. But really -- you almost never had to pay anywhere near list price for discs.
The industry is screwing the performers and the holy wave of the future is musicians who control all of their business and artistic affairs.
Yes and no. Like entirely too many capitalist enterprises in the US, the music business lost its patience and generosity over the course of the '80s. Crud contracts were as old as "mark here with X" and the idea that most musicians wanted to run the business end of their careers always made me laff. Yet pointing this out is some sort of heresy.
Running out of gas. Discuss, if ya wanna.
Amazon UK doesn't sell to US residents.
That's not true. I've bought pots of stuff from them.
hi-like yr xgau quote.Having no clue what to say, I responded (imagine, if you will, a squeal):
hi back-i like your music
Quick, send in the clones.
Don't bother, I'm here.
Don't get me wrong -- Hunky Dory is a great record. But to me it's always felt like a great record in the manner of Bob Dylan rather than The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Ellen Willis put it much better than I ever could in her piece "Bowie's Limitations." Track it down. Definitive. Was a marvelous tonic to read when I found myself surprisingly resistant to Ziggy Stardust (I suspect from now on I'll slap on Live Santa Monica '72 if I want to hear that material).
As to Rock Dreams (speaking of the early '70s), well, even when I first read it, I thought "wow, this guy's pretty, uh, narrow-minded about some subjects." Now that Cohn's predictably become an old-age reactionary in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, I concede that he has a sharp appreciation of rock in the '50s and early '60s, some insight into the British Invasion, and other than that he's a pinhead. Little Richard might make a good early-rock racial representative and a fine substitute for Bowie, even. But at the time, 1973, '50s rock was already starting to fade in the alarming manner that has continued since.
Speaking of which, what ever happened to the Def Jam Frank Ocean, originally scheduled for Thursday (records are almost never released Thursday--Monday, Friday in addition to Tuesday, but not Thursday), July 28?
My basic Bowie problem, FWIW, is that I always have to overcome the way he sings. It's that French thing he affects, or maybe just gravitates to naturally.
Station to Station
The Singles Collection
The only change in that list for many years has been the replacement of Changesbowie with Singles, which gives a richer version of the story even if it doesn't end soon enough (right after "Blue Jean" is fine) and, like seemingly every Bowie comp in existence it ruins "Heroes" by cutting it down to three and half minutes. That's a song that lives on its build, and when he's screaming by the second verse it just don't work...
I've had daily walking and dancing workouts in place for a long time, so I've amassed a pretty wide variety of stuff suitable for that purpose. Agreed on the Teddybears and Gogol B. records, though I slightly prefer Super Taranta! Other favorite artists, with best albums for the purpose in parentheses:
Wire (Pink Flag, Send, IBTABA, A List, and now the live one Xgau recommended)
New Order (Brotherhood, Technique, Substance)
Pet Shop Boys (Introspective, Discography, personal mixes)
Eric B. & Rakim (Follow the Leader, Best of)
Nick Lowe (personal mix from 70s and 80s albums...you could probably guess the titles)
Spring Heel Jack (65 Million Shades...)
JB, JB, JB...probably the very best for that purpose. Start the Live in Dallas CD right after the band intermission is through and see if you can survive until the end.
Make 'Em Mokum Crazy
Station to Station
Youssou N'Dour (too many to mention, but especially the early stuff)
Scritti Politti (Cupid & Psyche 85)
Those are just the ones I can think of right now...so many more beyond that. Will most likely modify this post as they come to me.
Just popping in to say that I won't be here for a week; my laptop died, and I have to get it fixed, so won't be online! I know what happened last time--everyone thought I had died! So, please don't file me in the obituaries! Although, I'm sure, the boy who cried wolf might come into play here! Love ya'll! *High school, bubblegum swish.
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.