Thursday, December 02, 2004

Glories of the Past

I promised a while back that I'd post my favorite reissues of the year, and frankly I'm glad I waited because today's mail brought a knockout box set I hadn't heard anything about. Reissues are more or less my bread and butter, because of my long-time affiliation with Fresh Air (which ran my Little Richard's Lost Years piece yesterday: listen to it here). Getting something on Fresh Air will help it sell, and since reissues aren't a priority for most record labels, they're overseen by a dedicated small band of fanatics, if they're a division of a major label, or just plain fanatics, if they're on indie labels.

The following list has both, and has stuff from the Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, right down to Dust To Digital, a one-man operation out of Atlanta. As previously, this is in no real order; I hate ranking things and prefer to leave that up to those who are so inclined.

* Johnny Ace: The Complete Duke Recordings (Hip-O Select) Hip-O Select is Universal's Internet mail-order reissue label, and its name couldn't, I suppose, have anything to do with Rhin-O...err, excuse me...Rhino Records, which is now Warners' reissue arm. It's hard to believe that they're charging twenty bucks for this, but it's worth it. Ace (real name James Alexander) came up as one of the Beale Streeters, the hippest band in late '40s Memphis, probably because besides him it contained people like Bobby "Blue" Bland and B.B. King. He fell under the sway of Don Robey, the notorious Houston gangster and record magnate, and his suave good looks and superior songwriting made him a teen idol for black teenage girls. If anyone recognizes his name today, it's because they know he lost a game of Russian Roulette backstage at the Houston City Auditorium on Christmas night, 1954 (maybe: other rumors have floated around in the years since), not because they know songs like "The Clock," "Saving My Love For You," and "So Lonely," or maybe because they know "Pledging My Love," which, thanks to the James Dean-like adulation that followed his death, became a huge hit in 1955. Anyway, it's all here, and it's great.

* Johnny Burnette: The Complete Coral Rock 'n' Roll Trio Recordings (Hip-O Select) A missing cornerstone of the history of rock and roll, mostly because this band didn't last a year after it started recording. Guitarist Johnny and his bass-playing brother Dorsey were as notorious throughout Memphis for their amazing stage act as for their habit of getting into drunken brawls with customers -- and each other. The key element of the group was electric guitarist Paul Burleson, who lived until last year (Johnny died in 1964, Dorsey in '71). Until I read Colin Escott's excellent notes here, I was unaware that Burleson had once been a member of Howlin' Wolf's band, or that the Rock 'n' Roll Trio had been playing this music since 1951 in various Memphis clubs, thereby predating Elvis by several years. Given their reputation, it's easy to see why maybe Sam Phillips didn't want to take a chance with them at Sun, but this stuff is as red-hot as anything he did record there, for the most part. There's one track with an orchestra, and Burleson had jettisoned them by the time the session that makes up the disc's last four tracks came along, but "Tear It Up," "Train Kept A-Rollin'," "Rock Therapy," and "Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)" are moments unlike any other. Essential.

* Howard Tate: Get It While You Can (Hip-O Select) Tate made news last year when he made his first record in a couple of decades, after a trip to Hell and back. The reason people liked that one so well was that it showed he was just as good as he was on this 1966 classic. Producer Jerry Ragovoy provided a lot of the songs here, including the title, which Janis Joplin picked up, and although it may be overkill for this reissue to feature the stereo and the mono mixes of the album, the result is just like playing it twice. Which you're going to want to do anyway.

* David Ruffin: David (Motown Select) '70s soul is perhaps an acquired taste, particularly for those who still think they loathe disco, but this lost solo album from the ill-fated Temptation David Ruffin is well worth your time. With production by the label's top people and arrangements (I think) mostly by Johnny Bristol, about whom more in a moment, this is one of those moments where the direction soul music was going started turning around. Why did the Powers That Be file it away and make him start over? His drug abuse? Getting on the wrong side of the Byzantine internal politics of Motown? Probably all that and more. None of which is audible here.

* Johnny Bristol: The MGM Collection (Hip-O Select) Bristol partnered with Harvey Fuqua, formerly of the Moonglows, at Motown, writing songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," but by 1973, like so many of the old guard there, he'd had enough. This disc brings together two albums I'd never heard before. Certainly I saw enough copies of Hang On In There, Baby gathering dust at fifty cents apiece to think that maybe it was truly awful: lord knows the cover was pretty bad. But it's a classic, heavily influenced by Marvin Gaye's work post What's Going On, mostly written and solely produced by Bristol, with arrangements by one of his few peers at the time, H.B. Barnum. His second album, Feeling the Magic, misses it by a hair, probably because Paul Riser's arrangements are pretty stock. Bristol died in March, and this ought to help rescue his lost reputation.

* Various Artists: Night Train to Nashville I did a Fresh Air segment on this amazing two-disc collection of soul music from Nashville -- yup, you read that right -- earlier this year, and I continue to be amazed by how wonderful it is. A co-production of the Country Music Foundation and Lost Highway Records (damn, another Universal Music Group company!), it stretches from Cecil Gant, one of the first modern R&B performers, through the Prisonaires' "Just Walkin' in the Rain," one of Sun's first hits, to a vocal by a youthful Joe Henderson (better known as a tenor saxophonist of much depth), to the irrepressible Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson (with a hip electric sitar!). Great stuff from an unknown part of the musical universe.

* Jimmy Bryant: Frettin' Fingers (Sundazed) Three discs of amphetamine-crazed hillbilly electric guitar and steel guitar music? Hay-ull yes! Maybe a bit too much of a good thing, but the world of the anonymous sideman in country music is one well worth exploring, as is the idiosyncratic school of it that Capitol Records birthed in California. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are well-known, but Bryant and steel player Speedy West recorded a lot of backup stuff. Capitol was smart enough to let them do a few LPs, too, and they've become prized collectors items for country and jazz pickers, who sweat buckets trying to copy them. Bryant also did a bunch of records without West, and this three-disc set cherry-picks the best of the albums and singles he did between 1950 and 1967 for Capitol. An amazing footnote to country history.

* Various Artists: Can't You Hear Me Callin' (Columbia Legacy) As close as anyone's going to get for a while to telling the story of bluegrass. The way labels refuse to lease tracks because they think they're sitting on a gold mine is a rant for another time, but I have to hand it to the compilers of this set for being as inclusive as they could be, even going slightly outside the lines of bluegrass per se to make their point about its being influential. It was still a minority music within the minority music of country, but what's interesting is that it seems to have remained vital while real country music is just about dead. This is because bluegrass learned how to accept a new audience, while country stubbornly alienated it. Anyway, disc four here is hit and miss, the booklet is unreadable (and Columbia used to have such great art direction!) and mine has already fallen out, but other than that, this is as good an introduction to bluegrass as you're going to find out there.

* The Stanley Brothers: An Evening Long Ago (Columbia Legacy) No, it's not the best Stanley Brothers album, but it is a pretty amazing one, recorded privately in 1956 by a fan, and showing a very stripped-down approach to bluegrass. Their greatest period, on King Records, was about to begin, and you can hear it happening here. Also features the world's shortest version of "Orange Blossom Special," which bluegrass fans everywhere will rejoice in. It's not a bad tune at all; it's just not worth wanking for seven minutes on.

* The Clash: London Calling, Legacy Edition (Columbia Legacy) In a way, it's just marketing. In another way, it's great to have this whole document. It's one of the very greatest records of the punk era, and I'm recommending it this year not because of the original album, which is available all by itself, or because of the so-called "Vanilla Tapes" demo, heard here for the first time (it's only intermittently interesting), but because the DVD which is the third disc in the set has a wonderful documentary of the making of the album, featuring gonzo producer Guy Stevens, whom I'd heard about from Mott the Hoople (he produced them, too), in full swing. Literally. With plastic chairs. If you want to know why the Clash imploded, there are also important clues here. Great stuff.

* The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire/Warner Bros/Rhino) At a distance, is this too arch? Is David Byrne really all that people (not least of whom is David Byrne) think he is? Is the 1980-81 expanded, funkathized band really all that good? I'm still tossing these questions around, trying to toss nostalgia out the window, trying to get a handle on this expanded version of the classic live Heads material. Which, I guess, means that this is an important record. And those of you who wish to impede your listening with nostalgia (hey, I'm not being judgmental here, but it's something I have to deal with as a professional hazard: can't listen to this stuff fresh until the nostalgia leaves) should definitely grab this.

* Various Artists: This Is Reggae Music (Trojan/Sanctuary) This is the one that came this morning, and, as one of the first people in the U.S. to write about reggae (true: see "Drug Crazed Rastafarians Conquer Known World" in Creem, sometime in 1971), I educated myself from the thick packages of Trojan LPs the great promo man Max "Waxie Maxie" Eastman shot my way from Britain in the early '70s. This was before the total Rastafication of reggae, before the Wailers' Jamaican recordings were slowed down slightly to a logy pace more in tune with American stoners, when reggae was, like rock and roll had been before it, admitting of all manner of trash and weirdness. Because Trojan took stuff from anyone they could get it from before releasing it in England (with some exceptions), they could cast their net wide, from the weirdest Lee "Scratch" Perry productions to the sweet, peppy pop reggae of the Pioneers. The track list here looks like four years of packages from Waxie Maxie boiled down to four CDs, including stuff I haven't heard in 30 years and some stuff I've never heard. Great art direction, seems like good liner notes (I found out that the Desmond Dekker song is "It Miek," not "It Mek," as was printed on the U.S. record, and that the title does not, as I'd always heard, mean "fuck you" in Turkish -- and I've only skimmed, so far), and unless the sound is ungodly horrible -- and I'll post here if it is -- this is a must-have.

* Various Artists: Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (Numero) You wanna talk about fanatics, these guys are fanatics. Three records so far this year, only available through their website, two of them surveys of soul labels so obscure the Brits haven't even gotten to them -- and that's obscure! Their survey of the Bandit label has a much better story, but the music is almost unlistenable (hey, didn't anybody relate to the concept "flat"?) , but on this one, it all comes together with the story of a label that tried to make Columbus, Ohio the soul capitol of the country in the mid-'70s. Very obscure, very much fun. At least check out Numero's website, but I think this might be the future of specialty retailing: you'll notice that their prices are considerably lower than Hip-O Select's.

* Duke Ellington: Piano In The Background, Duke Ellington: Blues In Orbit, Duke Ellington: Piano In The Foreground, Duke Ellington: Masterpieces By Ellington, Duke Ellington: Ellington Uptown, Duke Ellington: Festival Session (all Columbia Legacy) This has been a great year for Ellington lovers, as Columbia emptied its vaults of late Ellington onto CD with extra tracks, a process they've been engaged in for some time. I'm not going to jump into the early-Ellington-versus-late-Ellington debate, except to note that there are sub-standard records in both periods. I am, however, fascinated with the idea of Ellington as a classical composer using an idiom that Americans, at least, still haven't accepted as such, and Masterpieces, at least, bolsters that concept very nicely. Perhaps Blues Uptown and Festival Session aren't essential, but an Ellington piano record like Foreground is always worth listening to: it's a mine of ideas. As someone who believes you can't have too many Italian cookbooks (I'd recommend Marcella Hazan and the Marianis, for starters), this has been a banner year!

Finally, there is no more despised genre than the Christmas record, and I'm sure some of the artists you hate the most have come out with some this year. But the folks who brought you the world's weirdest gospel box set, Goodbye, Babylon, have just released a 24 track assortment of gospel and folk Christmas music that does't suck, that, in fact, inspires. It's called Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, and it's deliciously eccentric. Which, of course, is the kind of Christmas I hope everyone will have!

(Valid question: why didn't any rock magazine pay me to write this?)

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