Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
The past sure is tense. Thinking back amid the knotted exposed-nerve gratings, atonal mewlings, bent cranial psychedelics, unspooled lyricism, and farcical aliases; among all the silly accouterments that gush forth when the name Beefheart is evoked, it's easy to forget one thing: For nearly two decades, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band(s) made astonishing music. From mind-altering jazz wrecks to primordial backbeat sludge, this was original and experimental work, rendered understandable, even unforgettable, through a common thread: raw rock & roll blues power. For the uninitiated, Grow Fins is not the place to start (Rhino has a multilabel compilation due later this summer). For the true fan, however (and who else will buy a 5-CD set of Beefheart rarities?), this box set holds a blue million miles. At least half of the material has never been available -- not even in bootleg form -- but you won't hear new material; instead you get live, demo, radio, and rehearsal tracks, between-song banter, retreads and reworkings of material from dozens of albums, and even one phoned-in vocal. Among these fragments of varying fidelity are some illuminating pieces of the puzzle; you hear Beefheart's (née Don Van Vliet) Howlin' Wolf voice first appear, the soprano saxophone come out of its case, and the band painstakingly assemble Trout Mask Replica, their densest work, previously rumored to be largely improvised. The Trout rehearsal segments prove the most fascinating, but there's more: the demos of "Obeah Man" and "Sure Nuff n Yes I Do," the live "Electricity," "Woe Is Uh Me Bop," "Black Snake Moan," and "Grow Fins," the wailing backward blues about reversing evolution and a woman that won't leave a man alone. Unfortunately, there's not much from the last three Beefheart albums, or any of the much-sought-after early Bat Chain Puller sessions, and several tunes are repeated superfluously. While these problems are noteworthy, there's still real insight for the Beefheart fan, and for the majority who never got to see him perform (Van Vliet retired from music in '82 and did not participate in assembling this set), disc four has 30 minutes of CD-ROM live footage. The videos are truly a case of the bride stripped bare; Van Vliet in his hat and puffy Seventies haircut looks very much the young California kid. For all the efforts of his various record companies and high school buddy Frank Zappa (who christened him Beefheart and produced Trout in a self-consciously arty manner) to market Van Vliet as some sort of circus freak, the material always rises above the hype. Van Vliet was very serious about his work, and couldn't understand why his albums did not sell. While never coming close to a hit, he made important and influential music, and that Grow Finseven exists is testament to that fact. Rock & roll may never again have an avant gardist with so much funk, or soul -- or anger, which increased as his career continued to flounder. John French's (Drumbo) detailed notes chronicle the chaos of the Magic Band and the frustrations that eventually drove Van Vliet from the business. (He now makes his living as a painter.) All these raw rarities make the recent reissue of his debut, Safe as Milk, on the recently resurrected Buddha label, sound like Pet Sounds by comparison. Yet this blues rocker holds up magnificently well, while another Buddha release, Mirror Man, successfully attempts to reassemble what was originally planned to be a double album follow-up from the botched Strictly Personal sessions. That this revival of sorts is taking place without Van Vliet's acknowledgment is somehow appropriate. He gave us his heart and soul all those years ago. It's our turn to pay attention.
4 stars --Jeff McCord
Dr. Samuel J. Hoofman and the Theremin
Invented in the early Twenties by poetically mad Russian scientist Lev Sergievitch Termen, the theremin is played without any physical contact; electric fields around two rods are manipulated by hand movements in the air, one hand controlling the volume and the other pitch. The resulting sound is at once a virtuosic soprano, a violin, and a musical saw, but with an electronic sheen that has lent a spooky, sexual vibe to many a soundtrack and pop song (most famously the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"). This 3-CD set on Netherlands label Basta collects a series of 78rpm recordings of chiropodist-by-day, bandleader-by-night Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, who lent his talent on the theremin to soundtracks such as Spellbound and It Came From Outer Space. Disappointingly, the first disc, "Perfume Set to Music" -- a product tie-in with French perfumer Corday's line of scents -- is heavier on piano and glossy choruses of oohs and ahhs than the theremin itself, as is "Music out of the Moon." The most interesting CD of the set (if you're buying the box for the instrument it's spotlighting) is "Music for Peace of Mind," containing intriguingly titled tunes like "This Room Is My Castle of Quiet" and "The Darkness Gives Me You Again," and featuring Hoffman's theremin (sometimes three of them at once) as the focal point of the orchestra instead of a textural novelty. With a sound and playing method as odd and intangible as the ultra-weird history behind the theremin -- the vanguard of music's electronic age -- any collection of early theremin recordings should easily supersede any failings of the reissue mill. Considering the relative lack of theremin in this collection, however, and the reproduced cover art, which is sure to evoke chagrined head-shaking from vinyl enthusiasts, this box set smacks of prefab product for the shelves of Urban Outfitters. The original format, not the label, is to blame for the brevity (the longest CD is just over 19 minutes), but the extensive liner notes take longer to read and are, in the end, more interesting than most of the music collected here. Enthusiasts would be better off renting the brilliant documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey and flipping through thrift store bins for the originals.
2.5 stars -- Kim Mellen
The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper (Warner Archives/Rhino/Alive)
Poor Alice. This 4-CD box set finds him staring out from behind the barred window of a locked steel door, in the slammer because of offenses committed since he began his life of musical crime in 1966. Should he go free? That's a tough question. Sure, across his career, Cooper (née Vincent Furnier) has had his share of high and low points, but did he ever sink low enough to be put away forever? Leaving his outrageous onstage antics aside, let's investigate the music itself. Disc one takes us through early tracks by the Spiders and the Nazz (not to be confused with Rundgren's concurrent outfit), all of which are cool, rough, and vaguely eclectic (if still very derivative) rock, before diving into the real thing -- the Alice Cooper Group (known to die-hards as the "real" Alice Cooper). From its experimental beginnings, heard here via a total of three tracks from their unfocused Pretties for You debut and its follow-up, Easy Action -- plus a couple of unreleased tracks -- it's clear there was promise in this purposely irritating act. It wasn't until Love It to Death and Killer, however, both of which came out in 1971, that ACG blossomed into full poisonous flower, establishing a penchant for crawling into the heads of America's youth ("I'm Eighteen"), adventures into theatrical/cinematic territory ("Ballad of Dwight Fry," "Desperado"), shock tactics ("Dead Babies"), and the ability to rawk as hard as anyone in Detroit ("Under My Wheels"). After that, things went downhill. Don't get me wrong; School's Out is still an all-time high-school classic, with all of the above themes still chugging away, but in it can be found the seeds of Alice's destruction: a bit too much interest in playing Broadway, and increasing lyrical silliness that, out of control, would soon reveal this proto-shock rocker to be more Ray Stevens than Black Sabbath at heart. And keep in mind, we've only just come to the end of the first CD. Disc two gives us the last gasps of ACG, with highlights from the semi-classic Billion Dollar Babies and the not-so-classic Muscle of Love, some rarities, and Cooper's first solo steps. Without the group's input, the singer immediately turns into Dr. Demento's version of a Las Vegas lounge act. Songs that might have been shocking to Mr. & Mrs. America back then are now clearly novelty songs with a touch of black humor and the too-occasional outburst of great riffage. By the halfway point of the box, we literally hear Alice Go to Hell. Disc three sees further MOR antics, with Alice proving himself more than capable as a sort of Barry Wolfmanilow, and material from a string of albums the liner notes refers to as "personal" -- i.e., nobody liked them but Cooper. Disc four, which opens appropriately with "He's Back" from some Friday the 13th movie, shows Cooper embraced by a new generation and hitting it big with the generic but compelling "Poison." By 1994, with the surprisingly strong concept album The Last Temptation, Cooper is damn near back in top form before taking us into the future with a superfluous Rob Zombie collaboration. Good or bad, Alice Cooper has always been at least interesting. Yeah, go ahead. Let the poor sucker out.
3 stars --Ken Lieck
Happy Trails: The Roy Rogers Collection (Rhino)
Rhino should have packaged this 3-CD, 92-song anthology of "The King of the Cowboys" in an official Roy Rogers lunch box, the Sony Playstation of the Forties and Fifties. Few screen icons, even of that Golden Age, ever cast as long a shadow as the man born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati on November 5, 1911. The King of All Media when Howard Stern was still in diapers, Rogers appeared in over 100 films, hosted a pair of top-rated radio programs (Alka Seltzer's Saturday Night Roundup and The Roy Rogers Show) as well as one of the first TV variety shows on NBC, and made a never-ending series of personal appearances at rodeos, state fairs, and shopping centers throughout America. The toy box at my grandparents' house in East Texas, used by three generations of Grays, still contains a plastic Trigger (Rogers' horse) that my dad used to play with; on the wall of his old bedroom is a letter he wrote one of his aunts after seeing the legendary cowboy at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. Sadly, for someone who never paid a dime to see one of Rogers' Saturday matinees, more than a few songs here come across as irrevocably dated musical curios laden with pie-eyed Technicolor schmaltz as assembly-line Hollywood as they come. Rogers' style was easily closer to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw than Bob Wills or the Light Crust Doughboys, but there are still plenty of undisputed Western gems here to compensate: "Don't Fence Me In," "Home on the Range," "Git Along Little Dogies," "Red River Valley," "Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie," "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)," and "(There'll Never Be Another) Pecos Bill," to name a few. There are some surprises here as well: Rogers could call a mean square dance ("Do-Si-Do" and "Lady Round a Lady and the Gent Solo"), and in later years proved himself every bit the equal of Buck Owens or Jim Reeves in the country arena; "Lovenworth" has got to be one of the most atrocious pop music puns ever recorded. And far be it from me to speak ill of someone with such an obvious abiding love for the Lone Star State (and especially for Uvalde's Dale Evans): "Take Me Back to T-E-X-A-S," "Gonna Build a Big Fence Around Texas," "(Down the) Trail to San Antone," "Roll on Texas Moon," "You Can't Take Texas Out of Me," and "If You're Ever Down in Texas Look Me Up." "Happy Trails" is certainly a memento of a bygone era, but wouldn't we all be a lot better off if our biggest problem was a cloud in our valley of sunshine? Look me up if you're ever down in Texas, Roy, but please say howdy to my dad first.
4 stars --Christopher Gray
Peggy Lee & Benny Goodman
The Complete 1941-1947 Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Anita O'Day & Gene Krupa
Let Me Off Uptown (Columbia/Legacy)
Doris Day & Harry James
Young Man With a Horn (Columbia/Legacy)
Rosemary Clooney & Duke Ellington
Blue Rose (Columbia/Legacy)
The theme of this batch of four new reissues is singers with bands, in case you hadn't noticed. The Peggy Lee/Benny Goodman 2-CD set contains all of the titles they cut together for Columbia during the Forties. Just 19 when she joined Goodman, Lee was already an accomplished singer, but would get better -- one who could handle ballads and fast-tempo tunes with equal aplomb. One of her best performances is "Why Don't You Do Right," a blues number that had been a hit for Lil Green. Lee's convincing on it in her own way -- sensuous, sensitive, and humorous. There's nice solo work here by Goodman, Cootie Williams, and Mel Powell, as well as some good charts, e.g., "My Old Flame." Anita O'Day also made her breakthrough in 1941, with Gene Krupa's band, going on to create a very influential style that marks the work of June Christy and Chris Connor. Like Lee, O'Day's major influence was Billie Holiday, though she was more extroverted than either. A fine ballad artist, as demonstrated here on "Skylark," she was used by drummer Krupa mainly as a rhythm singer. On some tunes she shares the spotlight with trumpet great Roy Eldridge, a very advanced player at the time and one of the first African-American jazzmen to play with a white swing band. He and O'Day do some happy, infectious singing on Let Me Off Uptown. O'Day's relaxed swinging and improvising can be heard throughout the single CD, particularly on the wordless "That's What You Think," which unfortunately doesn't feature her terrific improvised scatting. Before she was an actress, Doris Day gained attention as a vocalist with Les Brown. Here she does tunes featured on the 1950 film Young Man With a Horn. Harry James ghosts the trumpet work for star Kirk Douglas, and on some tracks Day doesn't appear. She was a decent singer with a forthright style, solid time, and clear enunciation, but her choice of notes always bothered me; she doesn't resolve melodies well. James, however, sounds good. He had updated his style since his days with Goodman, absorbing ideas from Eldridge and bop. Rosemary Clooney comes in at a notch or two above Day, having been a jazz or jazz-oriented vocalist initially but later gaining commercial success with novelty numbers. She was paired with Duke Ellington to hype his return to Columbia after having been with Capitol for a few years. Clooney sounds relaxed here and does a nice, solid job, performing a role that was familiar to her. Not surprisingly, the band steals the show, with rich charts by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and the likes of Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Willie Cook, and Ray Nance providing solos. It would take some kind of singer to outshine that band!
(Lee/Goodman) 4 stars
(O'Day/Krupa) 4 stars
(Day/James) 3 stars
(Clooney/Ellington) 4 stars --Harvey Pekar
Loud, Fast & Out Of Control: The Wild Sounds of 50s Rock
Family values pundits who clamor incessantly for a return to the Fifties might think twice after being confronted with this 4-CD box set in a dark alley. Unlike your average oldies-but-goodies collection advertised on late-night TV, Loud, Fast & Out of Control dispenses with the gloss-smeared fantasy of Happy Days reruns and Johnny Rockets diners in an attempt to present Fifties rock in its original, more delinquent, context. This is a timely lesson in an era where both sides of the culture war view the social upheaval of the Sixties as ground zero. From Jackie Brenston's 1951 R&B hit "Rocket '88" to the Phantom's 1960 thwack-back oddity "Love Me," this set expertly navigates its way around the slow-dancin' letter sweater schlock that would weigh down a compilation with a less-defined mission. Many of these songs ("Jailhouse Rock," "Johnny B. Goode," "Tutti-Frutti") are now part of our national tableau, but it doesn't take much to imagine how threatening such noise must've been to the royal order of red-baiting and white-only restrooms. This is especially true when you listen to the standards alongside lesser-known gems such as Screamin' Jay Hawkins' riotous devil-rock progenitor "Little Demon," Kid Thomas' mile-a-minute "Rockin' This Joint To-Nite," and Wanda Jackson's prurient siren song, "Fujiyama Mama." Virtually every song here packs a good-kid-gone-bad growl that simultaneously conveys hostility and liberation. Even today, a growling King Curtis sax solo or Link Wray guitar solo (or knock-offs thereof) often serves as Hollywood's stock aural cue to introduce a brooding boy who's going to stomp your ass or a promiscuous girl who's going to give you a social disease. Speaking of, there's more than enough thinly veiled ribaldry to go around here. Everybody knows Little Richard's Miss Molly "sure likes to ball," but this line sounds positively tame next to Big Joe Turner singing, "I'm like a one-eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store" in "Shake, Rattle and Roll." First and foremost, though, this music was fun, and fun for the moment. Surely Dallas-bred Ronnie Dee (née Dawson) wasn't thinking of the ages when he youthfully growled out his four-wheeled demands for a "lotta action, baby!" in the rockabilly jaw-dropper "Action Packed." Wanda Jackson most likely didn't lose much sleep over sensitivities that might be offended by the lyric, "I've been to Nagasaki -- Hiroshima too. The things I did to them, baby, I can do to you." Ironically, it's this anarchic immediacy that imbues Fifties rock music with a resonance extending far beyond one generation's Clearasil years. Say what you will about the American juvenile delinquent, but be thankful for his impeccable taste in music.
4 stars --Greg Beets
Rahsaan Roland Kirk/Yusef Lateef
Separate but Equal (32 Jazz)
Les McCann/Mitchell-Ruff Trio
20 Special Fingers (32 Jazz)
Just Before Sunrise (32 Jazz)
Warm Cool (32 Jazz)
Atlantic Records isn't reissuing albums from their rich jazz and R&B catalog. Instead they've leased title to Rhino, which put out a few deluxe boxed sets, then issued a list containing hundreds of LPs which they, in turn, leased to smaller reissue labels: Mosaic, Koch, and Collectables, which is in the process of re-releasing 100 LPs on 50 twofer CDs, and 32 Jazz have so far been issuing this important Atlantic material. 32's Joel Dorn was a key producer at Atlantic during the Sixties and Seventies, and his latest group of 2-CD reissues from that label include some sessions he supervised, including the stuff on Separate but Equal, which includes Kirk's The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color and Lateef's Part of the Search. 3 Sided ranks among Kirk's more interesting projects, an audio collage containing the sound of horses' hoofbeats, Kirk's spoken-word tracks, during which he expounds on a variety of topics, a version of "High Heeled Sneakers," and originals including "Echoes of Primitive Ohio and Chili Dogs," and two versions apiece of "Freaks for the Festival" and "Portrait of those Beautiful Ladies." There are all sorts of influences present: Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Afro-Cuban, rock, and R&B, but Kirk weaves them together cleverly and skillfully in his overall design. Lateef's Part of the Search seems to be some kind of campy, retro album. Its tracks are separated by the sound of someone switching rapidly from one radio station to another, and the charts are evocative of swing era big band music and Fifties R&B. It's a pretty lame set, although Yusef ends with a warm, straight-ahead version of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." 20 Special Fingers contains Les McCann's Much Less and Mitchell/Ruff's The Catbird Seat. McCann's given a string background, provided by Bill Fischer, who does a nice job, considering that this is a commercial album. McCann, who gained a following as a popularizer of gospel-influenced jazz, plays with more restraint than usual, though he's not very inventive. Pianist Dwike Mitchell and bassist Willie Ruff were members of a Yale chorus that toured the USSR in 1959, gaining attention when they began jamming there to the delight of Soviet citizens. During the early Sixties, their duo work and trio playing with drummer Charlie Smith, who appears here, got them some notice. Mitchell has a boppish style and seems to have been influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell. Like them, he has good chops, although his touch is lighter. In general, he, Ruff, and Smith perform in a pleasant but not challenging manner; in fact their work's kind of generic. Lloyd's CD contains his LPs Dream
Weaver (1966) and Love-In (1967). His group consists of, in addition to himself on tenor sax and flute, pianist Keith Jarrett, bassists Cecil McBee and Ron McClure, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. This forward-looking outfit, influenced by John Coltrane's quartet, nevertheless had its own identity, and there's reason to believe it influenced Miles Davis' late Sixties development; Jarrett and DeJohnette went on to play with Davis. Lloyd picked up ideas from rock bands and Indian and Far Eastern music, which you can hear when his group plays funky and sometimes sounds corny. Mostly these guys are very stimulating, though, the soloing certainly being impressive. Lloyd was among the first and best Coltrane-influenced tenormen and a fine flutist, while Jarrett hadn't developed his fully evolved approach when these LPs were cut, though he's still a monster: a very creative improviser whose style comes out of many sources, including Bill Evans, Paul Bley, and modern classical music. Here, he reaches inside the piano to play the strings directly with his hands. DeJohnette, already brilliant, has gone on to be recognized as one of the great jazz drummers, and McBee and McClure are also impressive. Chris Connor's 2-CD Warm Cool contains 40 tracks drawn from her 12 Atlantic LPs. She was one of the best and most well-liked jazz singers to emerge in the Fifties, coming to the fore when she replaced June Christy with Stan Kenton in 1953. Like Christy and her predecessor with Kenton, Anita O'Day, she sang with tenderness and sensitivity but didn't employ much vibrato. Connor swings sure-footedly and is an imaginative and subtle improviser. Here she's given effective small group, big band, and string backing, and the selection of tunes is very astute, including such unique items as the striking but seldom heard "When the Wind Was Green," and a vocal version of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman."
(Rahsaan Roland Kirk) 4 stars
(Yusef Lateef) 1.5 stars
(Les McCann/Mitchell-Ruff Trio) 2 stars
(Charles Lloyd) 4 stars
(Chris Connor) 4 stars --Harvey Pekar
Simply the Best (MCA)
Johnny "Guitar" Watson
Blues Masters: The Very Best Of ... (Rhino)
Blues Masters: The Very Best Of ... (Rhino)
The least-known of these three blues guitar titans is the underappreciated virtuoso Earl Hooker. A disciple of Robert Nighthawk and a second cousin to John Lee Hooker, he was primarily a sideman who seldom sang and recorded only sporadically under his own name, which may help to explain why he never gained the recognition his vast talents deserved. This new MCA collection is an odd mix of Hooker's work. The first three tracks were initially all instrumentals on the Chess/ Checker/ Argo imprints, although the Muddy Waters vocal that appears here on "You Shook Me" was overdubbed a year later onto what was originally Hooker's "Blue Guitar." These three selections, the masterful "Tanya" in particular, are easily the best selections of the set. The rest of the album was culled from mediocre ABC Bluesway sessions from 1969 with Hooker and longtime companion/organist Johnny "Big Moose" Walker mainly backing the likes of Charles Brown, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Andrew "Voice" Odom, and cousin John Lee. Hooker shines throughout, demonstrating a varied assortment of sounds and styles, in spite of production qualities that leave something to be desired. Nonetheless, these sides are noteworthy as they proved to be some of Hooker's last recordings; he died the following year of tuberculosis at the premature age of 40. While Hooker toiled in relative obscurity, Albert King was becoming one of the major electric blues stylists of the post-war period. King had a big, warm voice, and an immediately recognizable sound whose slashing, signature riff was copped note-for-note by the likes of Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and others. Opening with the high-flying "Let's Have a Natural Ball," based on Horace Silver's "Cookin' at the Continental," and closing out 15 years later with "Cadillac Assembly Line," this is prime choice Albert King all the way. Most of the material comes from his soulful and prolific Stax output, which includes certifiable modern classics from mid-Sixties Memphis like "Crosscut Saw," "Born Under a Bad Sign," and "Laundromat Blues." Booker T. and the MG's and the Memphis Horns provide the backup on many of these sides. King was able to transition with the times, riding his Stax success well into the Seventies on the heels of Superfly-era hits like "Breaking up Somebody's Home" and "That's What the Blues Is All About." There's certainly no mistaking King for anyone else, as this five-star collection will attest. For his part, the swaggering, charismatic Johnny "Guitar" Watson epitomized the Texas-to-L.A. bluesman. A Houston native reared on the sounds of T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown, Watson came west with a vision, an attitude, and the requisite chops to back up his claim as the original Gangster of Love. Watson had it all together: He was a scintillating guitar-slinger, a fuel-injected boogie-woogie piano pounder, and a versatile, impassioned vocal stylist who was the major influence on soul queen Etta James. This collection captures it all with some of the most ferocious blues/R&B ever cut on the West Coast. "Hot Little Mama," "Too Tired," and "Three Hours Past Midnight" are unsurpassed for their unbridled intensity. Add to this the stone classic, "Gangster of Love," and several rare sides for the Federal label recorded as "Young John Watson," including the astounding "Space Guitar" with its futuristic effects. In many respects Watson was way ahead of his time and in a class by himself. We'll never see the likes of him again.
(Earl Hooker) 3 stars
(Albert King) 5 stars
(Johnny "Guitar" Watson) 5 stars
Swing West! Volume1: Bakersfield
(Razor & Tie)
Swing West! Volume2: Guitar Slingers
(Razor & Tie)
Swing West! Volume3: Western Swing
(Razor & Tie)
Three volumes available separately, Swing West! is an ambitious set of CDs attempting to chronicle the fertile California country music scene that existed from the mid-Forties to the early Seventies. Each volume spotlights a different, yet important part of the story, through both hit singles and obscure recordings, country music stars and relative unknowns. Bakersfield became a hotbed for country music thanks to the influx of Texans and Okies, who brought their music with them while migrating there looking for a better life during the Depression and WWII. The result was a scene that, for a time, challenged and surprised those in Nashville with its vitality. Volume 1: Bakersfield begins at the outset of the Fifties with the earliest hits for Capitol Records, which came from the likes of Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard, both of whom went on to greater fame when they joined the Grand Ole Opry. Also included are hits from the highly influential Wynn Stewart, as well as Rose Maddox, and of course, Merle Haggard. Red Simpson's original version of "The Highway Patrol" and the Farmers Boys' "Humdinger," two tunes that have enjoyed a revival of late, add color to the set. One major missing performer on this collection is Buck Owens, but the liner notes explain Owens himself decided not to license anything for the project. Volume 2: Guitar Slingers is perhaps the most interesting of the three discs, spanning three decades of innovative guitar playing by the likes of Les Paul, Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Roy Clark, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Joe Maphis, Roy Nichols of Merle Haggard's Strangers, and Merle Travis, among others. While mostly an instrumental set, some of the performances, like Maphis' "Fire on the Strings," Travis' "Merle's Boogie Woogie," and Bryant & West's previously unreleased "Lover" are amazing not only for the playing involved but also for the fact that these pickers were just discovering the possibilities of relatively new electric instruments and yet still displaying jaw-dropping style. With the current swing revival, Volume 3: Western Swing is likely to be the most popular of these three collections. It contains tracks from masters of the genre like Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley, Tex Williams & the Western Caravan, and Hank Thompson & the Brazos Valley Boys, while also giving due to the likes of Cliffie Stone (who gained fame in artist management, not in performing), Duece Spriggins, and Wade Ray. More than a few tracks predate the rock & roll era yet foreshadow its arrival with their high-energy and swaggering style. Taken as a whole, Swing West! is an impressive collection of songs that amply tells its story. Some may argue about track selection or the availability of some songs on other collections, but for anyone looking for a solid introduction into an important part of country music history, these three discs are a good place to start.
(All) 3 stars --Jim Caligiuri
Fats Is Back (Bullseye Blues & Jazz)
Two seconds shy of 30 minutes, Fats Is Back doesn't have a lot of time to spare. That's why, initially, the minute-and-a-half intro at disc's start seems embarrassingly egocentric: a dozen or so of Antoine "Fats" Domino's hits spliced together ("Ain't That a Shame," "Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walking," "Blue Monday," etc.). Then comes the canned live applause and hokey, boxing-arena-style announcement, Fats is back! Oh brother. Or that's what you might think given the chance, yet the opening segment cuts so quickly into the first song -- they're edited together as one track -- there isn't time. Suddenly, "My Old Friends" blooms into full living stereo with the rich chocolate voice of New Orleans' native son Fats Domino. Before you can catch your breath, another sharp edit brings the legacy of Crescent City piano kings to the fore with Domino pumping out the thumping, humping bump 'n' grind of "I'm Ready," after which it's one two-and-half minute gem after another: James Booker's seductive "So Swell When You're Well," the Bayou soul of "Wait Till It Happens to You" and "Make Me Belong to You," the playful R&B rubbing of "Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Best." Covers of two Beatles tunes, "Lady Madonna" and "Lovely Rita," are a little jarring at first, but when one considers this was the first real studio album Domino had recorded since his debut in 1950 -- as opposed to singles -- it makes perfect sense. By 1968, when producer Richard Berry came along with an A-list of studio players (Booker, Texas tenor King Curtis, drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer) and arrangers (Randy Newman), many fans and critics alike considered Domino a relic. Fats Is Back, recorded by a then 40-year-old Domino, proves the immortal talent was many lifetimes short of washed up, tickling the listener with that same old magic. Only updated; like the sound of big band jazz in the Fifties, Fats Is Back sounds modern. Sleek. So sleek that it slips by in that nostalgic twinkling of your eyes. Again and again. So many times, in fact, that you actually come to like that silly intro. An intro that begins with what many historians consider to be the first rock & roll tune, "The Fat Man." Come back, Fats, 71 is still young.
4 stars --Raoul Hernandez