Well, the release sheets are still a little thin, but they’re beginning to pick up. In fact, next week’s list is jammed with possibilities, and it gets better as we move into February and beyond.
I am desperately using this slow time to attempt to disassemble the teetering piles of late 2008 releases that are currently occupying a good deal of footprint in the Bunker to make way for the new piles that will be loitering there soon enough.
From my perspective, there are a pair of sweet discs on the shelves this week. The first is the fifth album from Derek Trucks, nephew of the Allman Brothers’ Butch Trucks. Prodigy can be a dangerous word to associate with a young musical talent. It can carry the connotation that the instrumentalist in question is touched by some divinity that has imparted unfathomable technical dexterity at an age that makes true musical understanding prohibitive at best.
By picking up a guitar and making angelic sounds with it at age 9, Derek Trucks certainly fulfilled the definition of a prodigy. But more than his youth (he led his first band at 11 and sat in with Bob Dylan at 15), more than his astonishing proficiency (he lent his searing slide technique to the Allman Brothers Band as a full fledged member a decade ago at age 20), it is Trucks’ deeply intuitive ability to inhabit and translate any and every genre of music that may be his greatest gift of all.
That gift is on magnificent display throughout the Derek Trucks Band’s fifth and perhaps best work, Already Free. Filled to overflowing with scorching yet delicate guitar work, a propulsively slippery rhythm section, swelling keyboards and achingly soulful vocals, Trucks and his band of brothers do not merely play the genres that they clearly love so well. They breathe them in, hold them in their lungs and exhale them just like the air that keeps them alive. When Trucks and his talented cohorts play the blues (their stirring, swampy and relevant cover of Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Down in the Flood,”), gospel (their funky take on “Sweet Inspiration”), soul (“Something to Make You Happy”) or sweet Southern rock (“Maybe This Time”), each song in that style is genuinely and appropriately touched in some way by all of the others, not in some messy, mashed up hybrid but in a way that shows how deeply Trucks and company comprehend the subtle threads that connect all music.
Derek Trucks’ prodigious talent or gift or genius is in his innate ability to accentuate and personalize the tones and colors that are shared by the genres he loves while retaining the heart and soul of their traditions and histories.
Next up is the latest from Jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman. One of the CDs I received when I got back into music writing -- after a two year detour to jump start my graphic design career -- was Joshua Redman’s sophomore album Wish back in 1993. I’m not a huge Jazz follower, more of a dabbler, really, but I was hugely impressed with Redman’s touch and execution. But most impressive of all was Redman’s innate ability to access the historical traditions and tenets of Jazz while maintaining his fiercely contemporary perspective. That has been the hallmark of Redman’s career and catalog and it clearly continues on his latest, Compass. Alternating bassists Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers and drummers Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson, Redman also slips easily from schooled traditionalist to intuitive innovator.
The moody and evocative “Ghost” shows Redman’s considerable circular breathing expertise and knack for invention, while “Just Like You” and “Hutchhiker’s Guide” sound like they could have been pulled from a classic Blue Note session in the ’50s, save for the occasional melodic Pop riff that anchors the songs to the here and now. All of it comes together in the marvelously paced “Insomnomaniac,” veering madly between relentless and slinky and never showing the seams between. Hope the Jazz Hall of Fame has a spare pedestal shined up and ready to go; Joshua Redman is a first-ballot shoo-in.
When it comes to my vinyl-to-CD project, the process by which an album travels from shelf to turntable to jewel case can take many forms. Sometimes I’ll get a call from a friend who’s looking for a particular album that’s so obscurely unwantable that it’s never been released on CD, and knowing that my collection is typically a rest home for the obscurely unwantable, they ask if I have the title in question and, if so, if I’ll burn them a copy. Most times I have the album of their quest, but the search for that album often uncovers things I’d like to do for myself.
My albums are all in alphabetical order but in a compartmentalized fashion. I have two rolling cases from Target and two sets of shelves that I built, and all are broken into album-sized cubby holes. I determined early on that alphabetizing each cube individually made more sense than trying to to start with A in the first case and end with Z at the bottom of my shelves. The constant shuffling and shifting of a straight A-Z format seemed daunting; my system works pretty well. If I only have one title by a particular artist, I can file it anywhere when I’m done and it’s never out of place.
It was on a search for a friend that I came across a couple of brilliant albums that wound up on disc this week. The first was Double Bummer, the second album from New York indie art Rock duo Kramer and Ann Magnuson, known collectively as Bongwater. Sadly, their partnership ended ugly, wound up in court and the financial strain sealed the demise of Kramer’s excellent Shimmy Disc label. But Double Bummer hearkened back to happier times, when the pair were clearly in the throes of creative passion and succeeding on a grand scale artistically. The double album is an amazing document of indie Rock in the late ’80s; it was one of my personal favorites of 1988. Being an equal fan of Frank Zappa and the Dead Kennedys, I was captivated by Bongwater’s chaotic approach of stitching together (mostly spoken word) samples with stream of consciousness lyrics and layering the whole thing with an anarchic musical style that was informed by ’50s Folk, free form Jazz, melodic Pop and blistering indie Punk Rock.
Several of the album’s songs consist of Magnuson narrating one of her hallucinogenic dreams, from the sexually-charged, perhaps hostage-drama inspired “Decadent Iranian Country Club” to the hilarious “David Bowie Wants Ideas.” Some of my personal faves are “Frank,” where Magnuson shrieks out Sinatra quotes while the band pounds out a Punk/Jazz soundtrack, “Dazed and Chinese,” a cover of the Led Zeppelin classic with lyrics in Mandarin, and “Crime,” a glammy Bowie-meets-Zappa peyote fever dream. Double Bummer was released in the last months of Reagan’s presidency and just before the election of the papa Bush, and Bongwater included plenty of political subtext, from Richard Nixon’s creepy victory speech in “So Help Me God” to the roll call of the guilty in “Reaganation.” Double Bummer is an exquisite and spastic evocation of the confused time that spawned it, and a testament to the state of Art Rock in the late ’80s. It is available on CD, but the two disc set includes Bongwater’s previous EP and an admittedly great pair of covers; their take on The Monkees’ “Porpoise Song” and Roky Erickson’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet.” But all the extra material makes the album go on just a shade too long; I prefer the purity of enjoying the beginning, middle and end of Double Bummer as it was intended.
My next vinyl burn was a combination of a pair of short releases by the Chills, a New Zealand combo that was primarily the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist Martin Phillipps but incorporated the musical talent of a good deal of the NZ scene of the ’80s and early ’90s. Looking for something completely different, I stumbled across my vinyl copy of Kaleidoscope World, an 8-song mini-album that collected tracks from the Chills’ initial single releases, and in a similar quest through my cassette archive I found my Chills’ Lost EP tape, a six-song quickie of about the same vintage as the songs on the album. Given their brevity and similar sonic make-up, I thought they’d make a nice combination on a single disc.
The Chills were truly one of the great Pop bands from Down Under at that time. They had a sound that suggested early R.E.M. obsessed with “See Emily Play”-era Pink Floyd, but shot through with the edgy Pop conviction that oozes from the pores of anyone from the Australia/NZ sphere of influence. As good as this early work was -- “Rolling Moon,” “Pink Frost” and “Doledrums” have the dark melodicism of Joy Division coupled with the rollicking psychosis of Split Enz with weird touches of spritely Pop beauty, like NZ’s version of Robyn Hitchcock -- the Chills’ later albums were little masterpieces, particularly 1990’s Submarine Bells and 1992’s Soft Bomb. Both are long out of print, but are well worth the effort of scouring the area’s used joints to find.
No shows to report on this week, so let me once again sing the praises of a fallen star, and one whose passing was sadly undernoticed. Just before Christmas, Delaney Bramlett died in a California hospital from complications of gall bladder surgery. Bramlett had a long history; he was best known as half of Delaney & Bonnie, his duo with then-wife Bonnie Bramlett, and their 1970 hit “Only You Know and I Know.” At one point, they were known as Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; their friends included Eric Clapton, Dave Mason and Jim Keltner. He also co-wrote “Let It Rain” with Clapton and “Superstar” with Leon Russell. Some friends.
Just this past summer, I found Delaney’s Mobius Strip album in the vinyl racks at Everybody’s, a great slice of Southern fried Rock and Gospel and Blues from 1973, about the time he and Bonnie went their separate ways. Mobius Strip is a splendid example of everything Delaney Bramlett did well and proof of all that will be missed in his absence.
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