Sunday, April 26, 2009

2007 Album Reviews: W-Z

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)

Loudon Wainwright III: Strange Weirdos (Concord)--Although it’s subtitled “Music from and Inspired by the Film Knocked Up,” Strange Weirdos never feels written to order. One reason is that the subject of Judd Apatow’s latest film (the less casual consequences of casual sex) is right up Wainwright’s alley. Another is that only six of the album’s forty-eight minutes are given over to soundtrack-like instrumentals (“Ypsilanti” and “Naomi,” both composed by co-producer Joe Henry). In other words, Wainwright being Wainwright, he probably would’ve written and recorded “X or Y“ (about chromosomes in general and the sex differentiation of the unborn in particular), “Final Frontier” (a “Cobwebs”-like song about love), and “Doin’ the Math” (“You used to believe that you would live forever / and a world without you couldn’t be, no way, never”) with or without Apatow’s patronage--and covered Peter Blegvad’s “Daughter” (like “Year” meets “The Swimming Song”) and Mose Allison’s “Feels So Good” (a worthy “So Damn Happy” sequel). Rating: Three-and-a-half last men on earth out of five.

The Dale Warland Singers: Lux Aurumque (Gothic)--Those, like me, who are unacquainted with this sixty-eight-voice choir will learn from the annotation that Lux Aurumque is the “last CD recorded before [the Dale Warland Singers’] disbandment in 2004.” Such listeners will also experience self-recrimination at having heretofore denied themselves the delights that the Singers provide. Aside from their unaccompanied singing--which, to quote the liner description of their performance of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” is “luxuriant to the point of sensuousness, yet also deeply reverent”--there is imaginative eclecticism in their repertoire. I was familiar with Rutter and Rachmaninoff but had never heard of Biebl, Alexandre Gretchaninoff, Howard Hanson, Pavel Chesnokov, or any of the other composers represented (by one piece each) herein. (It’s to Gothic Records’ credit that, in anticipation of such ignorance, they’ve provided educational liner notes.) The real pleasure, however, is, of course, the music. Intensely ethereal, it will appeal not only to listeners already well acquainted with sacred vocal music but also to dabblers who fell for the Gregorian Chant craze a decade ago only to find the primitive simplicity of monks insufficient to induce the meditative state in a mind battered by post-Freudian forces. Rating: Four-and-a-half pied beauties out of five.

Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, & James Cotton: Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down (Epic/Legacy)--This previously unreleased document of Muddy Waters’ 1977 Hard Again tour is as loose as Hard Again was tight but every bit as masterly (same dream-team band: Winters, Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Margolin, Charles Calmese) and maybe more fun. With Winter, Cotton, and Perkins taking lead-vocal turns and a spirit of call-and-response enlivening the songs most likely to feel over-familiar (“Caledonia,” “Got My Mojo Workin’”), the program goes from strength to strength so effortlessly that you eventually forget the absence of anything from Hard Again itself except “Can’t Be Satisfied.” In other words, the songs most conspicuous by their absence (“Mannish Boy,” “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll”) are made up for by songs conspicuous by their presence, most notably the very slow and--with its false endings suggesting a serious reluctance to die--very Faustian “Dealin’ with the Devil.” Rating: Four cross-eyed cats out of five.

Dale Watson: From the Cradle to the Grave (Hyena)--Like the “Hollywood Hillbilly” about whom he sings in the song of the same name, Watson’s stereo almost certainly “blar[es] Willie, Johnny Cash and Hank and Lefty,” and like his heroes Watson specializes in tiptoeing right up to the razor wire between common-man profundity and common-sap corn without stepping in the fertilizer. Warning: His tradition-soaked voice (Cash again, but mixed with Haggardisms) will test a generation reared on Keith, Chesney, McGraw, Rascal Flatts, or anyone else whose singing is better suited to sports arenas than to the roadhouses where the not-so-beautiful losers about whom Watson sings burn out and fade away. Rating: Three-and-a-half gunsmokes out of five.

Wattstax--Music from the Wattstax Festival and Film (Stax)--Twenty-six acts (many legendary), 112,000 fans, and (finally) no fake-live after-the-fact add-ons make this the definitive audio document of the August 1972 event known as the “black Woodstock.” And although it’s the music that keeps this historical moment alive, the moment’s enduring socio-political relevance cannot be denied. There’s the irony, for instance, of Richard Pryor’s nonchalant use of the very language that got Eddie Griffith’s plug pulled last month at a Black Enterprise conference in Florida. And there’s power in the unresolved sacred-secular tension of the Staple Singers performing their greatest hits, the red-hot Rance Allen Group leading into the even hotter Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas’s closing her set with “I Have a God Who Loves,” and the Soul Children’s setting up their adultery comedy “Hearsay” with their Jesus rave-up “I Don’t Know What the World’s Coming To.” In other words, while Martin Luther King, Jr., had been dead for four years, it’s his spirit that permeates these proceedings. Admittedly, except for Mel & Tim’s “Backfield in Motion” (extended to over five minutes to accommodate Tim’s explanation of whose in-motion backfield inspired the song), no song surpasses its better-known studio version, but neither does any version suffer much by comparison. And while the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s introductory exhortation packs good rhymes, my favorite couplet comes courtesy of David Porter on Disc Two: “Just because there’s no money in the pocket doesn’t mean there’s no joy in the socket!” Rating: Four-and-a-half knocked-on woods out of five.

Lucinda Williams: West (Lost Highway)--This poet’s daughter is apparently too talented to make a bad album, and it’s not only the words that don’t give her trouble. She’s also skilled at choosing the sort of forward-thinking roots musicians necessary to incarnate her melodies and at singing as if she both means and feels what she says. (Only on “Unsuffer Me” does she overact.) At least a half-dozen of these songs will tear your heart out whether or not you’re feeling particularly vulnerable (or acquainted with the recent death of your mother, a subject that inspires at least two songs), and the others function well enough as breathers to make up for their occasionally fatal flaw (sentimentality). Meanwhile Williams remains as sharp as ever on that most enduring of subjects: the turbulent emotions attendant upon the realization that you’ve once again fallen for the (usually very) wrong person. Rating: Four miller’s tales out of five.

Robin Williamson: The Iron Stone (ECM)--As the co-leader of the Incredible String Band, Williamson discovered, wrote, and performed some of the most truly mind-expanding folk music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Characterized by a disarming and often magical blend of Western mythology and Eastern instrumentation, the ISB went well beyond the dilettantism of George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” in their hiking of roads less traveled. Williamson’s latest adventures include mixing his own songs (most new, some old ones revisited) with his setting of famous poetry to music. This time out “Sir Patrick Spens” and one poem each by Emerson, the Sirs Thomas Wyatt and Walter Raleigh, and John Clare get the treatment, which, now as forty years ago, includes exotic sounds (Celtic harp, mandola, Chinese flute, drone flute, shawm, clarino) and Williamson’s voice, a voice that, even more than that of Bob Dylan's or Lou Reed's, will strike inexperienced listeners as, shall we say, eccentric. Leprechaun-like in tone, ever in search of the lost chord, beguilingly serpentine whether singing or speaking, it’s one of a kind. And once used to it you’ll be hooked. Rating: Four snake charmers out of five.

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Universal Republic)--Only twenty-three, Winehouse is already the stuff of tabloid headlines in her native England (the latest: she’s recently shrunk several dress sizes thanks to an obsessive workout regime and may be anorexic), and if AOL’s musicians-to-watch blog is any indication, she may soon be tabloid material here too (the latest: she drinks a lot and won’t apologize--with a name like Winehouse, what do people expect?). So it’s no surprise that of all this album’s hard-hitting songs, “Rehab” cuts the deepest (she “won’t go, go, go”). What is surprising is what Winehouse cuts with (a voice forged from every major ’60s soul/jazz/R&B female singer and several minor ones) and what she cuts through (a wall of sound built from Spector, Bacharach, Motown, Stax/Volt). Keeping the project just this side of retro are two small but significant aural details (the abuse-ravaged patina on Winehouse’s voice, the electronica-ravaged patina on the programmed drums) and one conceptual one (“Me and Mr. Jones” is not a gender-switched Billy Paul cover). Rating: Three-and-a-half Britain-y spears out of five.

Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise)—Acoustic live greatest hits, volume one, replete with context (a reprinted newspaper review that begins “All of a sudden ... Neil Young of Winnipeg and Toronto has arrived as a major pop star, someone to reckon with on the rich, heady, crowd-drawing level of James Taylor”), nine minutes of introductory applause and spoken song intros., and fifty-nine minutes of compelling performances and appropriately rapturous applause. Rating: Four more journeys through the past out of five.

A Rob Zombie Film: Halloween Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Hip-O/UMe)--Like whoever assembled the Dazed and Confused soundtrack fourteen years ago, Zombie ransacks the ’70s with an affection that makes even his obvious selections (Blue Oyster Cult’s “[Don’t Fear] The Reaper,” Nazareth’s “Love Hurts”) vicariously re-enjoyable. That he has gone for somewhat less obvious selections from Kiss, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton, and B.T.O. and included an ’80s live Iggy Pop cut, Nan Vernon’s clever updating of “Mr. Sandman,” and funny spoken bits from the film is a bonus. Favorite dialogue snippet, given a certain Atlanta Falcon’s recent travails: “Are you saying Michael did this? Michael loves animals!” Rating: Three-and-a-half knights of the living dead out of five..

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