Saturday, December 5, 2009

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part II)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

ALLÁ : Digs (Crammed)--Allá ’s Jorge Ledezma called his group’s 2008 album Es Tiempo the “Chicano Pet Sounds,” but this follow-up is no Smile, Chicano or otherwise. Clocking in at under half an hour, Digs is as tight, raw and driving as Es Tiempo was expansive, layered and trippy. Aside from the catchy, one-chord original “Si Se Puede” (which at 1:52 is practically over before it begins), it’s also a tribute to some of the group’s favorite bands, comprising Allá-flavored versions of songs by the Residents, Terry Riley and John Cale, Los Dug Dugs (pioneering Mexican psychedelic posters), and Faust (pioneering Kraut-rock experimentalists), versions solid enough to have under-forties seeking out the originals. “Love Lockdown,” meanwhile, is such a hothouse vocal tour de force it might have Kanye West seeking out singer Lupe Martinez.

THE BEATLES: Past Masters (EMI/Capitol/Apple)--The bad news, in case you haven’t heard, is that these two discs of odds and sods come packaged so tightly in a replica of a foldout LP cover that it’s all but impossible not to scratch them every time you slide them in or out. (At least vinyl records came protected in paper or plastic sleeves.) The good news is that you needn’t slide these discs in or out at all to hear their contents. Originally left off the Beatles’ U.K. albums and released only on 45s or EPs, most of these thirty-three songs have nevertheless long been available on one side of the Atlantic or another on compilations with more user-friendly--and disc-friendly--packaging (1962-1966, 1967-1970, Rarities, 20 Greatest Hits, 1). Meanwhile, though only audio nerds will likely detect the much-ballyhooed audio superiority of these latest re-masterings, average Fab Four fans of various nationalities will easily notice the pointlessly extreme separation of the “wider stereo” versions of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German) and “Sie Liebt Dich” (“She Loves You,” ditto) and wonder why we couldn’t have gotten, oh, I dunno, a spruced-up The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl or some other genuine obscurities instead.

CHRIS BELL: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe) (Rhino Handmade)--Big Star’s first album, 1972’s #1 Record, really is as special as its devotees claim, a perennially fresh hodge-podge of flower power and Beatle-esque pop (hence “power pop,” the name of the genre it more or less spawned). And Chris Bell was as much a reason for #1 Record’s greatness as his band mate Alex Chilton was. The proof is this album, compiled from Bell’s mostly unreleased mid-’seventies recordings and first released in 1992, nearly fourteen years after his death in a car wreck. This limited edition adds a second disc of alternate takes and pre- and post-Big Star recordings that Bell made as a regular at Memphis’s Ardent Studios as well as updated and insightful liner reminiscences by those who knew him best. Ethereal and earthy. Exhilarating and sad.

GEORGE BENSON: Songs and Stories (Concord/Monster)--For this album’s first seven cuts, it’s Benson-esque business as usual: smooth soul-lite vocals, smooth jazz-lite guitar, and smooth covers both familiar (James Taylor) and obscure (Donny Hathaway)--stuff that Benson has long proven he can do in his sleep by sounding as if he was asleep when he did it. ’Round about the thirty-five-minute mark, however, his dreams pick up steam, thanks to two lengthy, slowly simmering funk-lite instrumentals (Marcus Miller’s “Exotica,” Lamont Dozier’s “Living in High Definition”) and to two better covers (Tony Joe White’s familiar “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Smokey Robinson’s obscure “One like You”). But his neatest trick is going out on an instrumental version of Christopher Cross’s biggest hit so meditative it makes not quite waking up seem like the smoothest “Sailing” there is.

CARPENTERS: 40/40 (A&M/UME)--How is this two-disc, forty-song Carpenters compilation different than Gold, the two-disc, forty-song Carpenters compilation released in 2004? Well, since thirty of the songs on both collections are the same, 75% of 40/40 isn’t different at all. And although those who see the glass as half full will correctly point out that many of these songs are masterpieces of easy listening at its most tensile and therefore worth owning twice, those who see the glass as half empty will correctly point out that owning them twice and buying them twice are very different things. Furthermore, the ten songs on Gold but not on 40/40 (especially “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again,” “Merry Christmas, Darling,” and “Karen’s Theme”) are better than the ten songs on 40/40 but not on Gold.

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