Sunday, April 26, 2009

2007 Album Reviews: S (Part One)

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

The Sadies: In Concert Vol. 1 (Yep Roc)—If what you enjoy about the Sadies in the studio is their transformation of a mythical roots past into timeless reveries, this live, two-disc set will shake, rattle, and roll your preconceptions. Taped live just eleven months ago, it rouses the rabble so thoroughly that you’d swear at times the band is a different Sadies. In a sense it is, as twenty-five special guests (Jon Langford, Neko Case, and Garth Hudson among them) garnish the proceedings. They’re relegated mostly to Disc Two, though, so those who prefer their Sadies unadulterated should stay with Disc One, which sounds as mythically rootsy as a fan could want until “16 Mile Creek” seven songs in, after which they start mixing in a historical rootsiness replete with hillbilly imitations and “Higher Power.” Overall effect: a mishmash that works often enough not to seem too long, though it is. Rating: Three-and-a-half spaghetti westerns out of five.

The Sadies: New Seasons (Yep Roc)--Having spent 2006 getting their live and soundtrack albums out of their system, the Sadies buckle down and make the best long-player of their none-too-shabby career. In one melancholy folk-rock original after another, Dallas and Travis Good lead their band through a reinvigoration of not only their sonic trademarks (the setting of minor-key melodies to spaghetti-western guitars and surf-rock drums, the paying of tribute to the McGuinn-Crosby-Clark Byrds vocal harmonies of yore) but also the concept of the album as a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, while individual highpoints do stand out, the most immediately arresting of them--the spooky love-gone-weird song “Anna Leigh,” for instance, leading into the spooky breakup-gone-weirder song “The Trial”--mutually reinforce each other’s sense of mystery without exhausting it or making the hauntingly evocative instrumentals “Wolf Tones” and “The Last Inquisition (Pt. V)” seem redundant. Rating: Six-and-a-half miles high out of eight.

Doug Sahm: Live from Austin TX (New West)--Sahm was tighter in the studio than onstage (and in the ’60s, ’80s, and ’90s than in the ‘70s), but this 1975 Tex-Mex/blues/swamp-pop Austin City Limits show is good, loose fun.

The Sandinista Project (00:02:59)--What made the Clash’s Sandinista! special was that even at three vinyl LPs (now two full-length CDs) it never felt too long; what makes this multiple-artist re-recording almost as special is that it only sometimes does (most notably on “Lightning Strikes [Not Once but Twice],” performed by a Clash tribute band). What keeps the Clash’s Sandinista! special is that, even twenty-six years after its release, it can still stop party conversations and have partygoers with no use for first-generation punk in general or the Clash in particular asking the host what’s playing; what makes this re-recording almost as special is that it functions like good party background music and good solitude foreground music simultaneously, like a well-programmed alternative-music radio station playlist (which--thanks to the stylistic diversity of the template--it more or less is). What makes the Clash’s Sandinista! special is that, even now, when the Communist revolution to which its title refers stands revealed as the naïve exercise in self-enslavement that mature people always knew it was, its ideological subtlety and shape-shifting unity keep it rockin’ in the free world; what makes this re-recording almost as special is that its thirty-five-performer roster (the Mekons’ Jon Langford and Sally Timms appear twice) suggests E Pluribus Unum at least as much as “Workers of the World, Unite!” Rating: Four career opportunities out of five.

Santana: Ultimate Santana (Arista/Columbia/Legacy)--The last Santana compilation consisted of two discs and had the word “essential” in its title. And, assuming there is such a thing as essential Santana (some days I’m not so sure), the adjective fit. This compilation consists of one disc and has the word “ultimate” in its title. Now, “Ultimate” can mean “best of its kind” or “last in a series,” so which is it? Well, if you think latter-day Santana duets like “Smooth,” “Put Your Lights On,” and “The Game of Love” (included here in both Tina Turner and Michelle Branch versions) represent his finest moments, you’ll say “best.” But, if this collection is his best, why did Arista re-include only six of the “essential” songs? Because they go with the overridingly contemporary flow? (Nah, ’cause they don’t.) So kids, who tend to prefer the duets, and their parents, who tend to prefer the essentials, can pack only one Santana disc on their next vacation? (Maybe. Family values are “in” during election years.) Because I’m not the only one who’s unsure on some days that more than six of Santana’s essential songs are that great? (I’d have replaced the ’70s non-hit “Samba Pa Ti” with 1985’s semi-hit “Say It Again” myself.) Of course, if “ultimate” means “last,” everything makes sense. That is, unless the wily Woodstock survivor has a new album’s worth of songs “featuring” Kanye West, Dave Grohl, and Taylor Swift in the pipeline. Rating: Three soul sacrifices out of five.

Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees (Columbia/Legacy)—This blue-eyed soul classic is now thirty-one years old, the same age Scaggs was when he recorded it, and, yes, it sounds a little dated, but the moment it captures deserves to be preserved. From its swinging strings and singing backup chicks to its fast-dance/slow-dance pacing, you can tell it was crafted at the exact moment that Thom Bell passed the baton to Giorgio Moroder. Of its three deviations from the formula (not including this edition’s three bonus live versions), only “Lido Shuffle” hit the bull’s-eye, with all 5:11 of the barrelhouse-blues “Jump Street” still grinding what used to be side one to a halt. But pop-music formulas become formulas because, if ever so briefly, they illuminate afresh much that we thought was stale, and “What Can I Say,” “Georgia,” “Lowdown,” and “It’s Over” still do. Rating: Four silk Ph.D.’s out of five.

Billy Joe Shaver: Everybody’s Brother (Compadre)--Sony’s finally having granted permission, Shaver gets to include his early-’80s Johnny Cash duet “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” on one of his own albums . And it’s not alone -- not as a duet (other guests: John Anderson, Tanya Tucker, Kris Kristofferson), not as a Johnny Cash reminder (producer: son John R.; sole cover: Cash’s “No Earthly Good”), and not as gospel (other titles: “Jesus Is the Only One That Loves Us,” “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”). The love and friendship songs are all right too when they’re not outright heartbreaking, benefiting as they do from the prevailing acoustic honky-tonk ambience, Shaver’s weather-beaten voice, and one’s hearing them in the context of the “shooting incident” for which Shaver is currently under investigation. But the gospel songs steal the show, especially the one that goes “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.” Rating: Four Sunday morning‘s coming down out of five.

Billy Joe Shaver: Storyteller--Live at the Bluebird 1992 (Sugar Hill)--Son Eddy was still alive and on guitar, multiple ex-wife Brenda was still alive and in the audience, and the audience was quiet, all of which combined to bring out both the storyteller and the performer in the then-fifty-two-year-old star.

Shaw-Blades: Influence (VH1 Classic)--Talk about sophomore slumps. Twelve years after their first album (which consisted of original material ranging from not bad to pretty good), the Styx/Damn Yankee Tommy Shaw and the Night Ranger/Damn Yankee Jack Blades reunite for an all-covers disc. The theme is in the title: these songs “influenced” them, and--surprise!--they turn out to have had the same taste as the rest of us, from the good (the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” the Hollies’ “On a Carousel,” Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work,” the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” Yes’s “Your Move”) to the crappy (Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” ELP’s “Lucky Man,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and “I Am a Rock”), and most of the time their versions sound either just like the originals or as ours probably would were we to record any. For what it’s worth, they also cover Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” just so we know they’re anti-war. Betcha they don’t play it around Ted Nugent. Rating: Two grand illusions out of five.

Simply Red: Stay ( Red is best known in the United States for its now-twenty-one-year-old original “Holding Back the Years” and its now-eighteen-year-old cover of the then-seventeen-year-old “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” So if you don’t know the now-forty-six-year-old Mick Hucknall by now, this collection of his latest singer-songwriterly blue-eyed soul might seem like too much adieu about too little. Only it isn’t. Having continued recording and touring apace in his native England during the eleven years since Simply Red’s Greatest Hits, he’s kept his engine not only running but also well oiled. His reward? The best-selling “contemporary jazz” album according to Billboard. Only it isn’t--jazz, that is. (Apparently the appearance of Simplified on Verve Forecast in 2005 confused the bizzers.) And, despite such titles as “They Don’t Know,” “Lady,” and the title track, there’s not a cover in the bunch. There’s material worth covering though. With a little sympathetic retooling, “So Not over You” (a bittersweet ballad) and “Oh! What a Girl!” and “Good Times Have Done Me Wrong” (non-bittersweet non-ballads) could return Britney Spears and the Rolling Stones to the charts, respectively. Not that Hucknall’s versions need redoing; they have a life of their own. But they also have an openness that suggests the possibility and the desirability of further development. “I’ve been the master of low expectations,” he sings in “The Death of the Cool.” These songs demonstrate why these days he’s the master of something more. Rating: Four more brand-new flames out of five.

Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby: Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby (Legacy)--The trouble with recordings by veteran acoustic virtuosos like Skaggs and Hornsby is that they tend to cater to diehard fans while implicitly ignoring the public at large—to focus inward, in other words, instead of out. It’s a problem largely avoided on this album because Skaggs and Hornsby come from the opposite ends of just about every spectrum. Skaggs is a gospel-loving string picker with roots in bluegrass and country, Hornsby a secular-progressive ivory tickler with roots in pop, jazz, and the Grateful Dead. So if they were to accomplish anything together, neither could retreat into his musical comfort zone. The standout serious track is Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” recast as a minor-key Appalachian ballad (sort of). The standout joke is Rick James’ “Super Freak” transformed from a 'ho-down into a hoedown. In between they find fertile common ground in their mutual respect of the public domain. Rating: Three-and-a-half colliding worlds out of five.

Sly and the Family Stone: Stand! (Epic/Legacy)--The hits that first appeared herein (“Everyday People,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” the title cut) suggest that there would there have been no Prince, Michael Jackson, or George Clinton as we know them without Sylvester Stewart, but it’s the Stewart-composed, fourteen-minute instrumental “Sex Machine” that suggests even James Brown owed him a shout-out. And not only does a previously unreleased bonus track matter for once (check out “Soul Clappin’ II”), but the non-hits “Somebody’s Watching You” and “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” retain their freshness as well. Rating: Four-and-a-half riots goin’ on out of five.

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