1997 Records To Die For Page 3
PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: Crawfish Fiesta
Alligator ALCD 4718 (CD only). 1980. Bruce Iglauer, Andy Kaslow, Allison Kaslow, Mac Rebennack, prods.; Freddie Breitberg, Skip Goodwin, engs. ???. TT: 42:35
Released on the day before his death in 1980, this disc is as close as anyone ever got to capturing Fess's live energy on tape. Everything clicked for this swan song: His voice was never better, his playing was sharp and imaginative, quick tempos and strict arrangements kept the sessions from dragging, the band was tight (with Dr. John on guitar, and a horn section of two tenors and a baritone sax), and the inimitable man himself leaned back and had a ball. Best of all, the sound here, unlike most Fess recordings, is rich and well-balanced. This disc, perhaps the finest nugget in the otherwise Chicago blues-oriented Alligator catalog, also contains definitive versions of oft-recorded Fess classics like "Bald Head," "Big Chief," and "Her Mind is Gone."
TOM WAITS: Heartattack and Vine
Elektra 295-2 (CD only). 1980. Bones Howe, prod., eng.; Geoff Howe, eng. AAD. TT: 44:32
Choosing one disc from Tom Waits's incredible canon ain't easy. For crazy, blinding genius, or what Waits himself called "junkyard orchestral deviation," I'd have to go for Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs. For my favorite tune, "Ol' '55," I'd have to choose Closing Time. But forced to choose one, I opt every time for this collection. Explaining why is another matter. But then, why does one like any Tom Waits album? Style---or, more correctly, styles---has to be part of the answer. A deceptively talented actor---from Down By Law to Renfield in Coppola's Dracula---Waits's musical persona has assumed many guises. Of the lot, I've always enjoyed this final flowering of his greasy, growly, slightly funky cabaret-singer best. Tunes like "Jersey Girl" (did Zeus make Waits write it for Springsteen, or what?) and the stunning masterwork "Saving All My Love for You" are among the best things he's ever written. This album also marks the last time Waits actually tried to sing. From here on it was yelps, howls, conspiratorial growls, and other inhuman noises. There is no one whose work and personality interest me more than Tom Waits.
JIMMY SCOTT: All the Way
Johnny Mandel, Dale Oehler, John Clayton, arrangers
Blue Horizon/Sire/Warner Bros. 26955-2 (CD only). 1992. Tommy LiPuma, prod.; Seymour Stein, Joe McEwen, Bill Bentley, exec. prods.; Al Schmitt, eng. AAD. TT: 47:12
Does music get any more bittersweet and wonderful than this? I don't think so. Oh, and don't forget sexy---Jimmy Scott's triumphant comeback album is one of the sexiest sessions ever committed to tape. Blessed with a gift for phrasing that surpasses that of nearly every singer except his old pal Billie Holiday, Jimmy Scott is the ne plus ultra of vocal stylists. Often mistaken for a woman because of his high, piercing tones, Scott survived racism, sexism, his own foibles, and a lot of narrow-minded people to make this treasure. Filled with class arrangements, a group of top players, and standards like "Embraceable You," "Every Time We Say Goodbye," and the title tune (which has since become his signature tune), this disc is the album Jimmy Scott was always destined to record. Turn down the lights, pour the wine, and let Jimmy do the rest. (XVI-1)
THE REPLACEMENTS: Pleased to Meet Me
Sire 25557-2 (CD only). 1987. Jim Dickinson, prod.; John Hampton, Joe Hardy, engs. ??D. TT: 33:34
Like the Waits catalog, choosing a favorite from the 'Mats body of work is a challenge. While Don't Tell a Soul is full of appealing tunes, Hootenanny has the most energy, and Let It Be gets the prize for inviting disastrous comparisons (not to mention the classic "I Will Dare"), it's this cracked gem that, in the end, gets the nod. Recorded at Memphis's storied Ardent Studios (Big Star) and ably produced by Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, this is essentially a trio record. Just before going into the studio, the band fired guitarist Bob Stinson for the addictive behavior that eventually killed him in 1995. Paul Westerberg took over all guitars (along with vocals and songwriting), and the band somehow cranked out this, their masterpiece. "I.O.U.," "Alex Chilton," "The Ledge," "Can't Hardly Wait"---all became cherished parts of the band's enduring legacy. Forget the Beatles, the Stones, Rockpile, or any other rockin' band you may harbor unreasonable affection for---the Replacements were the best bar band ever, bar none, and this album may be their finest recorded half hour. Like the Waits catalog, choosing a favorite from the 'Mats body of work is a challenge. While Don't Tell a Soul is full of appealing tunes, Hootenanny has the most energy, and Let It Be gets the prize for inviting disastrous comparisons (not to mention the classic "I Will Dare"), it's this cracked gem that, in the end, gets the nod. Recorded at Memphis's storied Ardent Studios (Big Star) and ably produced by Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, this is essentially a trio record. Just before going into the studio, the band fired guitarist Bob Stinson for the addictive behavior that eventually killed him in 1995. Paul Westerberg took over all guitars (along with vocals and songwriting), and the band somehow cranked out this, their masterpiece. "I.O.U.," "Alex Chilton," "The Ledge," "Can't Hardly Wait"---all became cherished parts of the band's enduring legacy. Forget the Beatles, the Stones, Rockpile, or any other rockin' band you may harbor unreasonable affection for---the Replacements were the best bar band ever, bar none, and this album may be their finest recorded half hour.
THOMAS RAPP/PEARLS BEFORE SWINE: City Of Gold
Reprise RS 6442 (LP only). 1971. Tom Rapp, prod. AAA. TT: 27:21
"A city of gold is built of promises: personal, national, spiritual, kept and unkept...it comes down to whether we are, brick by brick, building a city of gold or tearing it down." So said Tom Rapp in the liners to his most philosophical and bracingly spiritual album. Pearls Before Swine existed for what seems like an instant in the late '60s and early '70s, leaving behind a legacy of great albums on ESP, Reprise, and Blue Thumb.
Opening with a country arrangement of Shakespeare's Sonnet 65 (really!), this 1971 album also offers one of the finest country/folk songs of any time, the title track: "I have crawled across the burning sands, to the city of gold..." Nobody bested Rapp's poetic imagery then, and nobody's done it since. "Once Upon a Time" is a jaunty, piercingly beautiful ballad, while the timeless grace of "Casablanca" is hauntingly lyrical. Sonics are warm and honest, especially on the white-label promo LP. Backed by Nashville's best, Rapp was at his best on this brief, beautiful album. Reprise plans a CD reissue of some of this material, but it's doubtful the whole thing will be digified anytime soon.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND: Lick My Decals Off, Baby
Straight/Reprise RS 6420 (LP), Enigma Retro 7 73394 2 (CD). 1970. Captain Beefheart, prod. AAA/AAD. TT: 38:53
Despite the almost universal acclaim rightfully afforded the apocalyptic Trout Mask Replica, 1970's Decals was Don Van Vliet's best album. Trout Mask boasted the unmistakable stamp of producer Frank Zappa, but Decals was Beefheart all the way. The Magic Band never sounded better than on these classic, wildly creative tunes. Lunging forward like a rickety wagon, then spinning and stopping on a dime to play intricate, lock-step, written lines, the band was consistently amazing.
The album's sound is also the best in Beefheart's discography: very little studio processing, and detailed as hell. Reissued in 1976 on a German LP twofer with The Spotlight Kid as 2 Originals of Captain Beefheart (WEA/Reprise K84006), it was also briefly available on the generally excellent-sounding Enigma Retro CD and a subsequent Rhino CD. To my knowledge, the album is once again out of print. "Mama, mama here come Doctor Dark / Horse clippin', clappin' 'n his ol' hooves makin' sparks." Brilliant, original, and completely essential, Decals is the most representative recording from one of popular music's most eccentric geniuses. (XIII-3)
1996 was a big year for me. It was the year I jumped fences on the thoroughbred daughter of a Kentucky Derby winner, discovered the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, and found out who Kathie Lee is! It is thus fitting that I found some great music at the same time, including...
DEAD CAN DANCE: Into the Labyrinth
4AD DAD-3013 (2 LPs). 1994. Brendan Perry, prod., eng. AAA. TT: 55:24
It's true enough that lots of groups are doing the mystical World Music thing these days, but Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerard were among the very first, and they still do it as well as anyone. WP has already told you how great the CD sounds; now try the analog version---a beautifully manufactured two-LP set, with dead-quiet surfaces and all the low end they used to roll off on vinyl. Hard to find, but way worth it. (XVII-7, XX-2)
HILDEGARD VON BINGEN: Complete Works, Vol.1
Sinfonye, Stevie Wishart, dir. Members of the Oxford Girls' Choir
Celestial Harmonies 13127-2 (CD only). 1995. Stevie Wishart, prod.; Tony Faulkner, eng. DDD. TT: 61:49
I've recently said my piece on this one, but to sum up: the best Hildegard performance on record, with Tony Faulkner's finest engineering job to date. Need I say more? An if thou surfest the Web, thou may'st find more http://www.harmonies.com (including ordering information, if your dealer won't get it for you).