January 2024 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Grateful Dead: Wake of the Flood, 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
Grateful Dead Records/Rhino Records R2 721375 (auditioned as CD). 2023. Grateful Dead, prod.
Performance *****
Sonics *****
Live At Northwestern ***

The Grateful Dead's 1973 album Wake of the Flood is notable for many reasons. It was the first record released on the band's own label, Grateful Dead Records, and it was the first studio album without keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (who had just passed away) and drummer Mickey Hart (who was on a hiatus). In Pigpen's place arrived the husband-and-wife combination of Keith and Donna Godchaux. Together, they helped songs like "Eyes of the World," "Stella Blue," and "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" quickly become live-set staples. Wake ushered in a new era of the Grateful Dead, one defined by a sense of independence and musical freedom.

The record is now celebrated with a special 50th anniversary edition, newly remastered and expanded with previously unreleased demos of "Eyes of the World" and "Here Comes Sunshine," and Live At Northwestern, a bonus disc of live material from the final night of a tour that followed Wake of the Flood's release. The package was produced by Grateful Dead Legacy Manager and Audio Archivist David Lemieux, with liner notes by former Grateful Dead archivist Nicholas G. Meriwether.

The remaster gives the record added warmth and greater clarity. It better delivers the creative shift taking place, rendering it more approachable and less demonstrative than previous studio material. Horn parts deliver brassier rhythmic bumps, and string arrangements are lusher. The live record presents great renditions of Dead classics like "Playing in the Band," but the mixing is uneven; at times the vocals sit well behind the balance of the band. Still, the package wonderfully presents a band in transition, setting a different kind of studio course and making music that they and other jam bands would mine for the next 50 years.—Ray Chelstowski

Betty Davis: Crashin' From Passion
Light in the Attic 196-1-1 (LP). 2023. Davis, Keg Johnson, Matt Sullivan, Danielle Maggio, prods. and engs., reissue prods.; Davis, Johnson, Dave Cooley, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Betty Davis was a singular musical artist, embracing forward-looking visions of funk, fusion, and fashion. She's credited with turning then-husband Miles Davis on to Jimi Hendrix, and her "nasty girl" persona, in which she growled lines and prowled the stage, cut a trail for the many female performers who followed her.

Writing and arranging all her songs, she released three albums in the early '70s; the last was Nasty Gal, from 2005 on Island Records.

Two sessions followed, both originally unreleased. The first, from 1976, Is It Love or Desire, appeared on reissue label Light in the Attic in 2009. In her final recordings from 1979, Davis corralled an all-star band led by bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Alphonse Mouzon, and pianist Herbie Hancock. The Pointer Sisters and Martha Reeves added background vocals.

Those final sessions were released without Davis's knowledge in 1995 as an album called Crashin' from Passion. Newly remastered and approved by Davis before her death in 2022, this is the album's first official release.

Pressed at RTI in several colors (though not at 180gm weight), Crashin' shows Davis moving toward a softer soul sound. While the opening track, "Quintessence of Hip," is hard funk, "She's a Woman" has Davis, who was more talker than singer, sweetly cooing her way through lyrics that plead, "Shower me with orchids if you're/Gonna touch my emotions." Led by Hancock's piano, the flowing funk of "Hangin' Out in Hollywood" finds Davis partying: "I'm swing so good, hangin' out in/Hollywood/I just met me a movie star, flyin' high/in a Ferrari car."

With newly remastered sonics, these sessions do not sound dated. They prove once again that Davis's music was far ahead of her time.—Robert Baird

X-Ray Spex: Conscious Consumer
Do Yourself In Records DYI1027LPC (LP). 1995/2023. Poly Styrene, prod.; Shawn Joseph, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

X-Ray Spex split up in 1979. It was a pleasant surprise when, in 1995, seemingly out of nowhere, the band reformed. Vocalist Poly Styrene was united again with Lora Logic (the original saxophonist), and bassist Paul Dean. The recorded result was called Conscious Consumer.

Not many noticed this CD-only release, which after all was from an aging punk-rock band, coming in the midst of the Brit-Pop media storm. Old punks—the few who noticed—were aghast at a tuneful, restrained Poly Styrene and pined for the rawness of "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" Conscious Consumer, though, is a fantastic album. It's criminally neglected. This reissue is warmly welcomed.

The first thing you notice is Poly Styrene's voice: She sounds young and enthusiastic. The vocals are almost bubble-gum pop. There's a freshness about the music, almost a naiveté. It almost sounds like Wet Leg (or, rather, Wet Leg almost sounds like this)—especially the humor in "Good Time Girl" and "Hi Chaperone." Logic's sax is high in the mix, alongside the vocals; sometimes it sounds like a duet. The themes were, and are, familiar to fans of the earlier edition of X-Ray Spex. Many of the songs are concerned with consumerism, as the title suggests. The sound may be light and bouncy, but the lyrics are serious. The first two tracks ("Cigarettes" and "Junk Food Junkie") swing, yet the focus is on unhealthy living: Poly Styrene could still write a lyric that bit. Environmentalism is the concern on "Melancholy." It, like "India" and "Peace Meal," reflect Styrene's and Logic's Hare Krishna faith. Not that Conscious Consumer is a glum listen. "Crystal Clear" is a beautiful song. The overarching message of the album is peace and goodwill to all. The songs have something to say, but they're incredibly catchy.—Phil Brett

Cat Power: Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert
Domino WIG524 (WAV). 2023. Chan Marshall, Andrew Slater, prods.; Rob Schnapf, Matt Schuessler, Ollie Nesham, Pete Panagaris, Eduardo Puhl, engs.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

In May 1966, Bob Dylan played the Manchester Free Trade Hall. After an acoustic first half, he famously returned to the stage after an intermission backed by The Hawks, who later became The Band, and went electric. The crowd heckled him after each song, and a rock legend was born.

Condemned as a sellout at the time by purists, the concert has come to be seen as a seminal moment in both Dylan's career and the history of folk music and rock'n'roll. Because of a mislabeled bootleg, the concert would forever be known as The Royal Albert Hall Concert—which is where, in November 2022, Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, recorded this ardent recreation.

Singing the concert's 15 songs in their original running order, Marshall—who has said "Dylan is a deity to all of us who write songs"—is accompanied, as in the original, first by only her guitar and later by a band.

While comparisons to Bob loom throughout—comparisons unlikely to work in her favor—these versions, faithful in arrangements and spirit to the original, work for two reasons. Like Dylan, her voice is thin and shaky but expressive in its struggles. Also, throughout, she's clearly feeling this music. There's a joyous energy when she and the band break into "Tell Me, Momma." Her interpretation of "Just Like a Woman," backed by Aaron Embry's harmonica, works beautifully. And while she has obviously studied the vocal inflections and pacing of Dylan's original show, having a female voice on tunes like "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" adds a refreshing new flavor.

While this will never challenge or even approach the brilliance of the original, it is an intriguing refraction of that show, with truly great live sound. It pays profound respect to one of the pivotal moments in the career of the greatest of all singer-songwriters.—Robert Baird

Glotz's picture

great selections this month. I can only imagine how well Wake sounds over the original! That is pretty good, IMO.

Solid Cat Power fan- good insights. Her touch is very felt. I will have to see her in town soon.

Anton's picture

When Wake of the Flood first came out, the local AOR FM station had a joke of the day contest and listeners could win different albums.

If they had heard the joke before, it couldn't win.

I was caller 7 one day and hit them with and original:

What do you call a monk who works at the Nottingham McDonald's?

A forest frier.

I got to choose an album and picked this one!

Still have it.

Glotz's picture

AND wholly original. Anton rules!!