Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Midday Ramblers- Married To Misery

The misery has ended.

No one's going to confuse The Midday Ramblers with the Del McCoury Band. But these Lawrence, Kansas, bluegrass boys possess unlimited spirit and enthusiasm, qualities just as important as technical brilliance and pure, high lonesome voices. Their wonderful album titles reflect the band's sensibility- Bluegrass Music Is Fun, The Midday Ramblers Play Songs They Know, and Free Country Music, which contains this impressive Kory Willis original.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Bob Woodruff- That Was Then

And the MP3 was up back then, too.

It turns out that there are at least two men named Bob Woodruff. One is a journalist for ABC who sustained life-threatening injuries in Iraq and is front page news today. There's also a first-rate country music artist by that name. He has only two releases, Dreams & Saturday Nights from 1994 and 1997's Desire Road. Both out-of-print albums are filled with tough songs about barrooms, broken hearts and forgotten dreams. Unlike his namesake at ABC, Woodruff never achieved great acclaim. He's too country for the "alt" crowd, and is too gritty for commercial country radio. I fear that the country Bob Woodruff may have stumbled into the same hard-luck obscurity that's befallen the character in "That Was Then."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Bottle Rockets- Wave That Flag

This flag waves no more.

Even more so than Uncle Tupelo, it was Brian Henneman's Bottle Rockets that epitomized the entire "No Depression" movement for me. Combining the honest aspects of Lynyrd Skynyrd and toughest elements of Merle Haggard, Bottle Rockets were arguably the best rock band in the world for a couple years in the early '90s. Henneman and company are still grinding it out, but they've lost momentum and Henneman's more recent material doesn't seem to have the same luster. This debut album, along with the outstanding Brooklyn Side, equal anything in the genre. Both seem to be out of print.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Brother Ali- Self Taught

The MP3 graduated.

Let's face it- most live hip hop shows are weak. Performances by the roster of the Rhymesayers label are an exception. A black albino Muslim, Brother Ali's incredible charisma and brilliant spontaneity make him even funnier and more provocative than labelmate Atmosphere. Accompanied only by a DJ, Ali wins over the few people in attendance who aren't already converts. On "Self Taught" from 2004's Champion EP, Ali explains himself and the Rhymesayers philosophy. As he says, "Any way you look at it, this shit is amazing."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

New Black- Time Attack

Time's up for the MP3.

Many people, myself included, are excited about the new Gossip album that came out yesterday. I've always liked punk-funk and no-wave by the likes of Gang of Four, The Contortions and The Bush Tetras. The Gossip, along with Chicago's New Black, are carrying on that noisy tradition. The title track from 2005's Time Attack is a two minute burst of brilliant idiocy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Julia Lee- Show Me Missouri Blues

Show Me up and left.

By the time this 1945 session was recorded in Kansas City, Julia Lee had been singing in clubs around town for twenty years. She was renowned for her risque songs, and the swinging "Show Me Missouri Blues" is no exception. "You proved to me everything is in the sack," she sings. "What I've got is too hot, ain't gonna put it on the shelf." And check Julia's piano solo- it epitomizes the bluesy sound popularized by Jay McShann and Count Basie.

Monday, January 23, 2006

John Hollenbeck- Weiji

Weiji has disappeared.

Are you up for some avant garde noise? John Hollenbeck's A Blessing comes across as John Zorn deconstructing an old Stan Kenton chart or as Gil Evans interpreting Sonic Youth. "Weiji" is some righteously evil noise. It's nominated in the category of "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album" in next month's Grammy Awards. I wonder what voters who actually listen to it will make of A Blessing's tribal drumming, brief flashes of swing and the use of voice as an instrumental instrument. Who knows? Perhaps Kanye West will hear it and transform this sound into the next big thing.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Jim & Jesse- It's a Lonesome Feeling

It's now even more lonesome without music.

I wore out my Music Among Friends cassette when I worked as a traveling salesman in the early '90s. "Lonesome Feeling" became a personal anthem, and it remains among my favorite bluegrass performances. Believe me, when you're working the territory from Bentonville to Boulder and from Omaha to Amarillo, these lyrics really resonate. "Nobody cares a thing about you. It's a heavy load."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wilson Pickett- I'm In Love

The song is over.

More than Solomon Burke and Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett was my entry point into hard soul singing. I just couldn't believe the way the man screamed. He made Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, both remarkable screechers, sound like utter twits. Pickett's classic recordings, along with a handful of more recent efforts, such as the fine 1999 release, It's Harder Now, will be enjoyed forever. Of his many hits, "I'm In Love" is the one that resonates most with me. Pickett manages to turns a trifle into a deeply affecting ballad. All that said, I need never hear "Mustang Sally" again. Pickett died today. He was 64.

Myra Taylor- Take It Easy Greasy

The grease is gone.

Myra Taylor is a superstar. It's just that no one outside of Kansas City knows it. On any given night, the 88-year-old is delivering her salty act to a local audience, as a solo artist or as a quarter of The Wild Women of Kansas City. Taylor began singing professionally- are you ready for this?- in the 1930s. She first recorded the novelty song "Take It Easy Greasy" fifty years ago; this saucy version is from 2001's My Night To Dream. It would take just one television appearance with Oprah, Letterman or the gals on The View for the world to fall in love with Taylor's oversized personality.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Roy Harper- Another Day

The song didn't last another day.

I'm thrilled by the recent freak-folk movement. Cats like Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens are making being a hippie stylish again. Of course, these artists' influences aren't limited to Nick Drake and Paul Simon. Dig under the newcomers' beards and you'll likely find a few moldy Roy Harper albums. Familiarity with Harper's music doesn't diminish one's appreciation of the new crop of artists, but it offers insights into the origins of many of their best ideas. Harper may be best known for the Led Zeppelin tribute "Hats Off To Harper," but perhaps this recent trend will rekindle interest the music of this secret touchstone. Harper has an enormous catalog; this wistful ditty is from 1970's excellent Flat Baroque and Berserk.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Shane MacGowan- More Pricks Than Kicks

Shane's song is gone.

Contingent on the vagaries of Priceline, I may travel to New York to catch the Pogues reunion tour in March. Like thousands of impressionable listeners, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash sent me into a tailspin in 1985. I'd followed the traditional Irish scene, but always considered it to be a quaint folk tradition. I never saw the original Pogues lineup perform and figured I never would. Shane's seemingly out-of-print The Crock of Gold, from '97, is better than anyone could expect. Still, to hear "The Old Main Drag" in March...

Monday, January 16, 2006

Pops Staples- I Shall Not Be Moved

The sentiment remains, but the song was moved.

The Staple Singers, lead by the inimitable Pops, were proof that music can, in fact, affect change. Who knows how many lives were altered when The Staple Singers moved the music of the church to the arena of pop radio?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bob Feldman, 1949-2006

The song is over.

I’d be lying if I said I liked Bob Feldman. I often found the president of Red House Records to be irrational and unpleasant. But I also knew that, no matter how misguided he might have been, he was always passionately fighting for what he perceived as the best interests of the Minnesota-based folk label. And with Feldman at the helm, the label not only survived but prospered through difficult times. Feldman died Wednesday. He was 56. Greg Brown is Red House’s co-founder and best-known artist, but the label continues to issue acoustic-oriented music by a wide variety of performers. This Peter Ostroushko and Dean Magraw duet album is a fine example of Red House’s aesthetic.

Bill Lloyd- This Is Where I Belong

This is where the MP3 used to be.

No disrespect is intended to Big Star, the dbs, the Beatles or to the author of this song, Ray Davies of the Kinks, when I name Set To Pop as my favorite power pop album. It's loaded with anthemic brilliance, including these two minutes of sugary goodness. While his partner in the excellent late-'80s act Foster and Lloyd, Radney, continues to make intelligent country music, Lloyd is an unabashed power pop geek. Even though it's out of print, Set To Pop enjoys an active life as a cult classic.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Solomon Burke- It Makes No Difference

Solomon is gone.

On paper, Solomon Burke's Make Do With What You Got should have been one of the best new releases of 2005. The soul legend covers Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Sr., Jagger/Richards and other impeccable songwriters. His band, led by Ray Parker, Jr., is tight. Producer Don Was has a expansive imagination and is sympathetic to veterans like Burke. But it just doesn't work. This reading of one of my favorite songs- The Band's "It Makes No Difference"- is a perfect example. The song's original vocalist, Rick Danko, had a shaky, vulnerable voice- the polar opposite of Burke's commanding instrument. Yet Burke just doesn't seem to be feeling it. Carping aside, it's still Solomon Burke and a great band interpreting a wonderful song.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Tech N9ne- Walk These Shoes

These shoes walked away.

Kansas City's Tech N9ne is a confounding collection of contradictions. He eagerly addresses the thug life, yet he also displays rare introspection. He's clearly in sync with the West Coast sound of Dre, yet instead of employing the usual slow drawl, Tech known for his rapid, Twista-like delivery. He sells out the region's big auditoriums, but a disproportionate number of ticketholders are college students. And then there's his hair... "Walk These Shoes," a defense of criminality on Kansas City's mean streets, is taken from 2000's The Worst: 2K Edition, which appears to be out of print. Filled with references to the problems that continue to plague this city, it's chilling to hear Tech toss off lines like "F*ck Ad Hoc," referring to an anti-crime group. But as he says, "'Til you walk these shoes, you couldn't understand my views."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Replacements- Here Comes a Regular

Gone looking for a party.

I never saw a good Replacements show. They disappointed me every time I saw them. It's not that they were wasted- that doesn't faze me- they just seemed bored and indifferent. Still, like thousands of other sensitive kids, they were my favorite rock band in the mid-80s, when Paul Westerberg's songs seemed as if they were written just for me. I collected the band's output, but now I can't even remember how I came to own this live promotional CD. Yet songs like this still kill me.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Mike Henderson- Country Music Made Me Do It

Mike went home.

Columbia, Missouri's Mike Henderson is one of roots music's top guitarists. Despite having a number of CDs to his credit, including the out-of-print '94 solo debut featured here, he's still relatively unknown outside the alt-country and Nashville session work scenes. Henderson's more recent work is tougher and rawer than the pure honky tonk of the title track to his sole major label release. Those with edgier tastes are advised to seek out those Dead Reckoning label titles first. Still, this is irresistible. "Hey bartender- I surrender!"

Friday, January 06, 2006

Lou Rawls- Love Is a Hurtin' Thing

Lou's song is over.

Lou Rawls was smooth. Sort of a link between Johnny Mathis and Otis Redding, Rawls enjoyed a prosperous career on the symphonic pops circuit in recent decades, but his original hits were so universally loved that his status as a great soul, jazz and gospel singer was never jeopardized. Just listen to his voice on the wonderful "Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing" from ‘66. It’s impossibly rich and lustrous, yet at key moments, he adds a tiny bit of gravel to emphasize that yes, love is a hurtin’ thing. Rawls died earlier today. He was 72.

John Wesley Harding- When the Sun Comes Out

This song's day in the sun is over.

I'd managed to resist salvaging this CD from its ubiquitous presence in bargain bins for years. But while caught up in a Christmas shopping binge a couple weeks ago, I finally claimed a copy at a dollar store. The 1993 release finds Harding when he's still trying to decide whether he should mimic Elvis Costello or Graham Parker. He's always been likeable, though, and Harding has since matured into a less strident Billy Bragg. This sparse arrangement was produced by Steve Berlin and features Greg Leisz's always wonderful steel guitar work. It's lovely.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Action Is- Tornado

The tornado moved on.

There's nothing fancy about Austin, TX, garage-rockers The Action Is. They clearly dig Iggy & the Stooges and The New York Dolls. Unless a band holding these traditional rock'n'roll values happens to be young and beautiful, it can be hard to catch a break. But The Action Is have stumbled into a bit of luck. Their music is featured in A&E's new reality show Rollergirls, which centers on an Austin-based roller derby team. The Action Is' unpretentious, sleazy fun is a fine match for the show's dubious premise.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Paw- Couldn't Know

This dog went home.

There was a moment in 1993 when it seemed as if Lawrence, KS, band Paw might acheive the heights of similar artitsts Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It didn't happen. Maybe they were too earnest. Perhaps Paw's hooks weren't sharp enough. Or it could be that Paw simply failed to distinguish themselves in that era's grunge glut. This song from Dragline also appears on U.K. CD single pictured.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

House of Freaks- Lonely

The song has ended.

Bryan Harvey, his wife and two daughters were found dead in their Virginia home Sunday. Police are investigating the tragedy as a possible homicide. Harvey had been half of the duo House of Freaks. He also collaborated with Steve Wynn in Gutterball. House of Freaks were a roots act with pop leanings, sort of a collision between Big Star and Tom Waits. Their dynamic is well represented in "Lonely" from 1994's seemingly out-of-print Invisible Jewel.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Johnnie Johnson

Johnnie Has Gone Home

Popular music wouldn’t have played out the same way without the contribution of Johnnie Johnson. Many rock historians insist that Chuck Berry's pianist had an incalculable influence on Berry. I believe that Berry’s genius was so overwhelming that all those great songs would have been written even without Johnson's influence, but that the "roll" in Berry's rock, and consequently, the very heart of a new music, would have suffered. It's as if the traditional performances of Johnson and bassist Willie Dixon are battling Berry's modernity on this 1955 blues.

I'm tempted to continue memorializing the fallen of 2005- I have yet to write about Luther Vandross and Willie Hutch, for instance- but it’s getting ghoulish, and I’m eager to get back to the living. This is the last post of the series.