It’s time to break out the cd Walkman again. I will be on tour to promote my new novel, Soul Circus, for the entire month of March, listening to music in airports, train stations, rental cars, and hotel rooms. Astute readers will notice that this year’s list is heavy with 60’s soul. The reason is simple: I have been working on a new novel set in 1968, and as is my habit, I immersed myself in the soundtrack of the period as I wrote. Anyway, here is this year’s lineup:
Otis Blue and The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads
Here are the two essential Otis long players, on Atco. The greatest soul vocalist of all time, backed by the greatest of all studio bands, recorded in Memphis, Tennessee. These are the core albums for your 60’s soul collection.
Also: Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits (Atlantic).
Sea Change, by Beck
Beck’s new one is a departure from the folk-hop of Odelay and the “ironic” funk of Midnight Vultures. Sea Change has been called his breakup album, his Blood on the Tracks, and his most personal work to date. I also think it’s his best. After a few listens, you cannot get these songs out of mind. Don’t expect a “Where It’s At,” don’t expect to dance, and don’t blame me if it’s not your thing (I liked Mutations, too.) This is just Beck, deadpanning, crooning, and growling against stately arrangements and insinuating melodies. The strings are straight out of Madman Across the Water (a nod to Paul Buckmaster, who also put his stamp on The Stones’ “Moonlight Mile”), the pedal steel is pre-alt-country country, and the vocals channel John Martyn and Nick Drake. Buyer beware: this is definitely not the record you want to put on to get your party started; rather, Sea Change is the last set of the night, to be played (loud) after the guests have gone home. As for me, I’ll be listening to it in hotel rooms as I criss-cross the country. What’s a one-word synonym for genius?
Backup: Veedon Fleece, by Van Morrison.
The Complete Goldwax Singles, by James Carr
James Carr is perhaps soul’s most under-appreciated artist. This might be due to the fact that he recorded for the tiny Memphis label Goldwax and was not a hitmaker on the order of a James Brown or Wilson Pickett. His biggest record, “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” (a prophetic title, given Carr’s “problems” and bouts with depression), peaked at #7 R&B and #63 Pop. Despite his relative obscurity, some think he was the epitome of Deep Soul. This collection, compiling all 28 of his singles and B-sides for Goldwax, makes a very good case for such a claim. Includes the classic Chips Moman/Dan Penn composition “The Dark End of the Street” (later recorded by Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers), “These Ain’t Raindrops,” “A Man Needs a Woman,” a great cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man,” “Love Attack,” and “That’s the Way Loved Turned Out for Me.” With incisive liner notes and fine packaging from the Kent Soul line out of the UK. James Carr died in 2001.
Backup: Chronicle, by Johnnie Taylor (Stax).
Different Damage, Q and Not U.
In the tradition of Mission of Burma, pre-Fear of Music Talking Heads, and Dischord’s own, late great Circus Lupus, D.C.’s Q and Not U is jagged, angular art-punk, with an added dose of go-go and dub injected into the mix. From the opening spell-lesson of “Soft Pyramids” to the gear-shifting “Black Plastic Bag,” Different Damage challenges and excites. Check out the drumming of John Davis, one of the most inventive stickmen on the scene, and, if you can, see them live. Produced by Ian MacKaye and Don Zientra.
Or: Soda Pop*Rip Off, by Slant 6.
The Lost Tapes, by Nas
These are the legendary tracks rejected from the sessions of I Am and Stillmatic, downloaded by Nas fans off the internet in MP3 format for years, now available for the first time in one high-quality sound collection. Every track here smokes, proving conclusively that Nas is the true King of New York (and that’s no cut on his most famous adversary; The Blueprint caught heavy rotation in my stereo, and in the stereos of my sons, all year long). What sets Nas apart from the rest of the pack is his lyrics. This guy is a poet, journalist, and natural-born fiction writer, all in one. I’d like to see what he could do with a novel. The verdict: his best since Illmatic.
Alternate: Phrenology, by The Roots.
The Rising, Bruce Springsteen
I’m not a rock critic, so I don’t have to protect my street credentials by denying the merits of certain artists just because the unwashed masses happen to like them. The Beatles, The Stones, Al Green…all were tremendously popular. Does that mean they weren’t “any good?” This lame logic has often been applied to Bruce Springsteen. To wit: one of the rock writers from a New York alternative weekly recently belittled Springsteen’s music because his fans are bridge-and-tunnel people, the ultimate in uncool. Meanwhile, my hometown-paper critic first informed us that Springsteen was “discovered” by Clive Davis—it was John Hammond, pal—and then went on to pan The Rising because it lacked, he said, “permanence.” Well, I’ve got news for both of you: out here in the actual world we’re laughing at you. Not only because you don’t get it, but also because you know jack about music. Having gotten all that off my chest, I have to admit, I was a little cool to The Rising the first few times I played it. But after a while, nearly every song burned itself into my head like no other set from the last year. As in all good records, it was the music itself, and not the lyrics, which initially hooked me in (the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up on “Countin’ On a Miracle,” when, after the bridge, The Big Man steps up and blows from here to eternity). The ballads haunt, the rockers rock hard, and the E Street Band has not sounded this tight, nor has Springsteen sung with this kind of passion, in years. And now the lyrics have got me, too. I have no doubt that The Rising will continue to elicit feelings about September 11th and its aftermath for years to come. In other words, this is a record with permanence.
The Magnificent Seven, by Elmer Bernstein (James Sedares, conductor, The Phoenix Symphony)
With all due respect to Ennio Morricone, this is the greatest single soundtrack ever composed for a western film. No other record in my collection can bring tears to my eyes (r.i.p. James Coburn) and chill my spine in one sitting. The film itself is the perfect marriage of image, sound, writing, acting, and directing, to my mind the apotheosis of cinema (take that, you arthouse snobs). MGM recently released their own, handsomely packaged reissue of the soundtrack, but I like this digital recording (on Koch International) by the Phoenix Symphony, which Bernstein himself called the definitive interpretation.
Alternate: The Great Escape, by Elmer Bernstein (MGM).
Border Songs, compiled by Ed Mattingly
This was handed to me by a friendly guy named Ed Mattingly while I was doing a signing at Bouchercon 2002 in Austin, Texas. It’s a compilation of Tex-Mex songs, sometimes known as Conjunto, Tejano, or just plain Border Music, and it has quickly become one of the most played discs in my collection. Includes selections by Marty Stuart (the theme from All the Pretty Horses), Flaco Jimenez (“Across the Borderline,” “Carmelita”), Freddie Fender, the Texas Tornados, Ted Roddy and the Tearjoint Troubedors, Dave Alvin (“California Snow,” “Border Radio”), Joe Ely (“She Never Spoke Spanish to Me”), William James IV, Tom Russell (“The Gardens”), and others. Like the man on your television says, you can’t buy this compilation in a store, but you can purchase the full-length work of any of these artists, and you will be satisfied. Have a few friends over, throw a couple of steaks on the grille, crack open those beers, and turn it up.
Aftermath (UK), by The Rolling Stones
ABCKO has begun to re-release the Stones catalogue in the hybrid SBCD/CD format, a layered remastering process involving DSD encoding that for once really does deliver greatly improved sound quality. Here for the first time is the UK release of the classic Aftermath, the first record to contain all original Jagger/Richards compositions. The difference? You lose “Paint it Black,” which originally kicked off the American release, but you gain three very good tracks. The first four cuts alone—”Mother’s Little Helper,” “Stupid Girl,” “Lady Jane,” and “Under My Thumb”—should clue you into the essential nature of this record. Also includes “Out of Time,” “I Am Waiting,” and “Take It Or Leave It.” With Brian Jones still an integral part of the lineup, this is The Stones finding their full-blown voice. Which is just another way of saying that Aftermath is their Revolver—and if you don’t own it, you need to.
Or: Between The Buttons. Yes, a more “British,” (read: Kinks-like) sound, dabbling in psychedelia, with little of the r&b influence of their earlier records. But it grows on you, and contains two of the Stones finest songs: “Back Street Girl,” and my personal favorite, “She Smiled Sweetly.” (Beware: the UK version omits “Ruby Tuesday.”)
Shakara/London Scene, Fela and Africa 70
Fela Anikulapo-Kute, a native Nigerian raised in London, returned to his country in the early 1960s as a highlife artist and became radicalized to the struggles of Africans around the world as he continued to develop his musical craft. In one way or the other, he would be in conflict with his government for the rest of his life. An extended stay in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s brought a change to his sound, an amalgamation of his roots and American funk, r&b, and jazz. The result was called Afrobeat, extended jams that took African rhythms and call-and-response vocals and married them to the JB-style horns and the rubber band bottom of the Parliament/Funkadelic axis. These two records, sold in one package, represent the Fela Kuti experience at its hypnotic best. The cover art of Shakara features 48 topless women with a smiling Fela seated amongst them, a frozen moment of happiness for a man who saw much pain. Fela died in 1997, of AIDS-related causes, weakened, some say, by the repeated beatings he incurred at the hands of the authorities, whom he fought with until the end. Thanks to my pal Dave Slater, who turned me on to this.
Alternate: Up For the Down Stroke, by Parliament.
The Soul of O.V. Wright
Overton Vertis Wright, the self described “Ace of Spades,” was born in 1939, and spent much of his early career singing in gospel groups before switching from the spiritual to the secular, enjoying modest success recording for the Back Beat label. Wright’s first record, the Roosevelt Jamison stunner, “That’s How Strong my Love Is,” should have made him a star, but a contractual dispute stifled its release (both Otis Redding and the Stones covered it later, to excellent effect), and he remained a marginal but highly respected figure to the end. Many have made note of the curious combination of muscularity and shrillness in Wright’s voice, famously described by Peter Gurlanick as “intense, whippet-thin,” and “emotionally wracked.” Also, the Back Beat records are unique: the bottom is fat, the female background singers sound like they’re down on something, and the subject matter of the songs is histrionic and often morbid. Which is to say that Wright is a genuine original in the soul cannon. If the later songs have a familiar, Al Green-style sound, it is because of the production of Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records rhythm section. Includes “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy,” “Eight Men, Four Women,” and one of the greatest soul sides ever recorded, “A Nickel and a Nail.” Eerily, one of his last singles was called “I’m Going Home (To Live With God).” Wright died in 1980, at the age of 41, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Alternate: The Best of Solomon Burke (Rhino)
Go My Way, by Robin Trower
In the early 70s, after a stint in the group Procul Harem, guitarist Robin Trower formed a band that bore his name and cut a series of stunning blues rock records on the Chrysalis label, complete with hole-in-the-world covers that kept the heads talking into the night. Trower always carried the burden of the Hendrix-clone tag, but he was, in fact, one of a kind. Listen to the classic Bridge of Sighs, then go to Twice Removed From Yesterday and For Earth Below, to experience the unique Trower sound at its mind-melting best. Robin’s most recent album, Go My Way, works on your head the same way. He doesn’t speed-burn the frets as he did thirty years ago, but his guitar work is fluid, inventive, and comes with more subtle emotion than ever. The title cut alone is worth the price of the cd. And, in addition to the rockers here, you get several of the trademark, tripped-out ballads that are a Trower specialty. Light the candles and light one up.
Alternates: any of the first three, punk-before-punk Blue Oyster Cult records (Blue Oyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation, and Secret Treaties), released on Columbia, recently remastered with extra tracks. Caveat: it helps if you were “there.”
The Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot, by Captain Beefheart
Here are two records from 1972 sold in one cd package, perhaps the best music bargain you’ll ever find. The Spotlight Kid is a kind of cracked blues album, focusing on the Captain’s famed multi-octave range, complete with Howling Wolf-style vocals. The sound mix is dirty, but somehow fits. This is my favorite Beefheart, perhaps because it was my first, like reading your first Chandler and experiencing that never-to-be-duplicated shock of the new. Contains “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby,” “White Jam,” “Blabber ‘n Smoke,” “Click Clack,” “Grow Fins,” and “Alice in Blunderland.” Clear Spot, produced by Ted Templeman (who would go on to produce Van Halen, among others), is a much more commercial record with a cleaner sound. “Rock” and r&b arrangements (complete with horns and backup singers) dominate the mix, and there are even a couple of potential singles in the set. This is Beefheart at his most accessible (that is not a backhanded compliment; you have been instructed by rock critics to buy Trout Mask Replica, but you will not play it as often as Clear Spot, guaranteed). Contains “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man,” “Too Much Time,” “Long Neck Bottles,” “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles,” “Big Eyed Beans From Venus,” and the title track, which finds the singer “sleepin’ in the bayou in an old rotten cot.” As a bonus, the booklet displays several of the original paintings of Don Van Vliet. Thanks to my friend, Sushant Sagar, for turning me on to Beefheart twenty-seven years ago.
“Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note, and let it float.”
Alternate double: #1 Record/ Radio City, by Big Star.
Maladroit, by Weezer
What a concept: thirteen short, guitar based pop songs, complete with hooks, solos, and a fat, live sound. Some Weezerheads don’t like their latest, but I like it fine. I need one tour cd that rocks out from start to finish. This is the one.
Backup: Fun House, by The Stooges.