Record reviews Reissues



THE CONGOS

Heart of the Congos (Blood and Fire)

As the host of a weekly reggae radio program, I'm privy to most new reggae releases -- good and bad. I can't recall any album in the past few years that's quite blown me away like this Congos' reissue. Originally released in 1977 under the direction of reggae's mad genius, Lee "Scratch" Perry, at his famed Black Ark Studio in Kingston, Heart of the Congos brought together the best elements of the music for a mesmerizing coalition of heavenly vocal harmonies from singers Cyric Myton and Roy Johnson and crunching, hypnotic roots riddems forged by drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Boris Gardiner. The sound instantly reminded me of why so many of us fell in love with the magic of reggae when it first washed up on these shores 20-some years ago. The biblical themes that run through the songs dramatically add to the earnest message of the music. Much of Perry's work during this period, including classics like Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" and Jah Lion's "Columbian Collie," was released in the U.S. on Island Records, but other than a 12-inch single of "Congoman" (included here), Island, for some odd reason, passed (or missed the boat) on this absolute gem. Other obscure reissues of this masterpiece have appeared and quickly disappeared over the years but Blood and Fire has finally done the music justice with its handsome
2-CD packaging of the complete session replete with remixed dubs. The legendary and eccentric Perry was cranking out consistently high-quality projects at Black Ark during this period but nothing he produced there ever surpassed The Congos. Trust me when I say this is essential listening for any and all of the reggae massive.
5 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg


BEFORE THE BLUES: THE EARLY AMERICAN BLACK MUSIC SCENE VOLS. I-3

(Yazoo)


HARMONICA MASTERS

(Yazoo)

Reading some of the older historical writing about jazz and blues, one gets the idea that they were almost fully developed in Africa then exported to the U.S., where they picked up a smidgen of European influence. This is absurd. African-American music uses European-developed harmony and structures, European instruments, and some European rhythmic concepts, while marching bands and European-originated popular music genres certainly marked early jazz rhythmically. Some more recent historians have tended to adopt the latter viewpoint and written about the common sources from which black and white Southern musicians and singers drew their ideas, even in areas where they were deeply divided socially. Yazoo Records' Richard Nevins goes even further in the notes to his three-volume series, Before the Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene, stating "Before the Civil War there did not exist in America two distinct bodies of music, one white and one black.... (T)he divergence of white music and black music into two separate genres doesn't really become clear until the turn of this century." Nevins' point is hard to prove or refute owing to the lack of recordings prior to 1900. However, there's no denying the great music on this series and on the lone volume of the Harmonica Masters. Examples of the work of white as well as black musicians are presented to demonstrate their similarities. Blues, old folk ballads, breakdowns, ragtime, string and jug band music are heard on the CDs. Some of the performers here are fairly well-known, such as Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Memphis Minnie. Most are not, however, and they include some wonderful folk artists who did not make a living by performing music. At this point the jury regarding Nevins' statements is still out. However, the main thing most listeners care about is the quality of the music on these CDs, and that can be recommended unreservedly.
(Before the Blues)5 stars
(Harmonica Masters) 4 stars -- Harvey Pekar


THE DRIFTERS

Rockin' and Driftin': The Drifters Box (Rhino)

What's in a name? More than the Atlantic Brass originally thought, apparently, because they originally wanted the Drifters to change theirs (too country-sounding). Funny, because years later, the Drifters would be singled out as the class of a label that has boasted everyone from Led Zeppelin to Aretha Franklin, dubbed by no less than Ahmet Ertegun as "the all-time greatest Atlantic group." This 3-CD box set is how they got that title. The Drifters' legacy includes some of the all-time greatest gems in the pop canon, everything from "Money Honey" to "Under the Boardwalk" and more, but more impressive than the still-stunning "Save the Last Dance for Me" is the work that surrounds it -- work that has made The Drifters synonymous with quality, class, and style. You want the best in the business, well how's this: singers Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, and Johnny Moore; songwriting teams Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, and Carole King & Jerry Goffin; and producers Jerry Wexler, Ertegun, Lieber-Stoller, and Bert Berns. Honestly, does it get any better than the McPhatter's raucous yelp on "Bip Bam," the feverishly swinging "Fools Fall in Love," or Ben E. King's ode to heartbreak "I (Who Have Nothing)"? No, of course not. Productive from the pre-rock & roll era all the way up to the mid-Seventies, the Drifters are one of the handful of groups that changed music -- and let music change them. Think about what Motown or soul music in general would have been like without The Drifters' impeccable sense of harmony, timing and arrangement. Without the shimmering melodies of "Room Full of Tears" and "This Magic Moment," what would Gamble and Huff have used for a model? People have drifted in and out of the group since it was christened in 1953, but as Rockin' and Driftin' shows, for the gold standard in post-war pop music, R&B, soul, doo-wop, rock & roll -- whatever you want to call it -- the only important name is the Drifters. Essential.
4 1/2 stars -- Christopher Gray


CURTIS MAYFIELD

People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story (Rhino)

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the early string of cleverly crafted hits Curtis Mayfield racked up in the Sixties with the Impressions, and oh so much right about the politically cautious hope of that era's "Keep on Pushing" and "People Get Ready." Still, People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story could have more power if it opened with "Sisters! Niggers! Whitey! Jews! Crackers!," Mayfield's 1971 cross-cultural call-to-action on (Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go. Twenty-five years later, it is still an undeniable attention grabber. The chant actually comes 14 tracks deep into this moving 3-CD collection and marks not only the onset of Mayfield's solo work, but also his political awakening and thus R&B's first seamless synthesis of wah-wahs, deep rhythm, and deeper messages. As such, the bulk of People Get Ready... is rightfully that 1971-1976 cycle, in which Mayfield's lyrical dreams of self-empowerment were mostly self-fulfilled artistically -- from the Superfly soundtrack's clever sermons to the space-funk of "Future Shock" and "Kung Fu." And even when chronology drags the third disc a bit -- save a pair of sprightly, pre-paralysis tracks from 1990 (Mayfield has been a quadriplegic since a wall fell on him during a gig) -- nothing ever seems to dilute the power of this box's middle section; timeless offerings that in today's landscape of hip-hop turf wars and soulless R&B sellouts couldn't be any more timely.
4 stars -- Andy Langer


VARIOUS ARTISTS

King Biscuit Flower
Hour Presents

(King Biscuit/BMG)

The King Biscuit Flower Hour was a syndicated radio concert series that started in 1973. In the bacchanalian heyday of arena rock, the show aired on more than 300 FM stations. Radio consultants Bob Meyerowitz and Peter Kauff started King Biscuit in the wake of Altamont to give timid (or stoned) fans a "safe" outlet to rock out "in the privacy and safety of your home." In this respect, the show was a huge success: You won't find rock much safer than this. Though King Biscuit captured everyone from U2 to Frank Zappa during its run, this recent collection of 12 live recordings from the vaults forsakes such artists in favor of perennial faves like America, Deep Purple, 10CC, Canned Heat, Kingfish, Rick Wakeman, Greg Lake, Steve Forbert, Robin Trower, and Triumph. "Best of the Biscuit?" Try "The Best Stuff We Could Afford Licensing Fees For." In the true turnip-squeezing tradition of RCA/BMG, these albums feature cheapskate two-color cover art and obsequious liner notes rife with error (Tomy Bolin? Bob Wier ?) Right away, you know this schlock is strategically geared toward a small-yet-insanely-loyal audience of completists. The only unqualified bright spot of the collection is Steve Forbert's 1982 set. Though Forbert's Eighties albums languished in the absence of adult alternative radio, the jaunty, informal songs here dole out a perfect mix of party rock and introspection. Kingfish's 1976 concert album may also hold some appeal for non-taping Deadheads and anyone else in the market for an R&B party record funneled through 25 bong hits. Otherwise, the King Biscuit collection's sole purpose is to demonstrate how the self-serving exploration of rock's limits slowly caved in on itself with the same fatuous arrogance as the Nixon Administration. One can only imagine how much David Coverdale thought of himself when he convinced a Ritchie Blackmore-less edition of Deep Purple to segue "Smoke on the Water" into a pig-squealing falsetto take of "Georgia on My Mind." A similar false sense of invincibility led Greg Lake into butchering "You Really Got a Hold on Me." America's feelgood amphitheatre rendition of "California Dreamin'" sounds on the mark by comparison. High on a coliseum stage, safely insulated from the paying denizens, these guys thought they could get away with anything. If your grandkids ever ask you, "Why Nirvana?," shove this collection in your multi-disc player, press endless repeat, and run like hell.
(Forbert) 3 1/2 stars
(Kingfish) 2 1/2 stars
(Everything else) 1 star -- Greg Beets


PATTI SMITH

The Patti Smith Masters (Arista)

Word has it that certain factions within Austin's punk community have taken it upon themselves to define what is/isn't punk. Discussions consistently center around mapping out rules of dress, behavior, and how music should sound. These newly self-appointed punk police have even taken it upon themselves to rewrite the music's history: apparently, innovators like Johnny Thunders don't even make the cut, seeing as how they're "not as punk" as the apparently superior UK Subs. God, how these kids must hate Patti Smith. She was a hippie, after all. Worse yet, she was a Poet! And what poet ever had anything to do with The Kids or The Working Class, even if they live in the upwards-of-$500 squalor of Hyde Park? Well, Smith may have been a hippie, but she was a hippie with teeth -- and a napalm heart. She also helped initiate the punk impulse at a time when punk's definition was a lot broader. She only once approached the ramalama pogo noise most associated with punk, on Easter's rousing "Rock `n' Roll Nigger." Yet with that one song, she took an off-handed Richard Hell observation from a Lester Bangs story ("Punk rockers are niggers") and expanded upon it, creating the ultimate misfit anthem: "Outside of society/That's Where I Wanna Be!" She was speaking about me, and she was speaking about you too, kid. And in far more beautiful and thrilling language than Charlie Harper could ever muster.
Sometimes, it was hard to penetrate that language, to deduce meaning. Poetry's that way. Still, most of the time, you just knew with Smith, even if you couldn't always decipher her. She was the ultimate rock & roll fan, looking and sounding something like a weird spiky cross between Keith Richards and a street-walking Dylan with a heart full of Rimbaud, always searching for the truth. Smith's truth didn't present itself within the parameters of an easily-defined sound, either. The John Cale-produced Horses ('75) found the Patti Smith Group debuting as a post-Velvets garage band, right down to the infamous sacrilegious recasting of "Gloria." Radio Ethiopia ('76) found the PSG plying a downsized, club-level, intellectual heavy metal. With Easter ('78), and its Bruce Springsteen co-penned hit single, "Because the Night", they were making blank generation Phil Spector records. Wave ('79) was similar, just written even larger to accommodate the stadiums Smith and band could now fill. Dream of Life ('88), essentially a solo record/collaboration with Smith's late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, was hiccough -- a misstep -- with a handful of good songs on the way to this summer's beautiful Gone Again.
All five titles have been remastered and reissued separately, but if you're a hardcore collector you want to be on the lookout for The Patti Smith Masters, a beautiful, pricey, and severely limited box set that rounds up Smith's entire catalogue, save for the new Gone Again (although two tracks from the new album appear on the bonus greatest hits disc, Selected Songs, that is part of the set). All titles have bonus tracks, and while The Patti Smith Masters box set is strictly a boutique item, the four original Patti Smith Group albums are not; they're essential components of any good, well-rounded rock & roll collection.
5 stars -- Tim Stegall


HANNA-BARBERA'S PIC-A-NIC BASKET OF CARTOON CLASSICS

(Hanna-Barbera/Kid Rhino)

Let's face it. Hanna-Barbera is synonymous with "crap." The whole basis of their operation from 1957 through the Eighties was "Do it as cheap as possible." Their critics called their cartoons "radio with pictures," and they were dead-on accurate. The humor, when there was any, came from the audio portion of the show, aside from gimmicky visual bits like a stone age family using modern day appliances that were -- get this! -- made out of rocks, or unintentional humor resulting from the shows' cheapness (i.e.: Look! They keep running past the same statue! Ha, ha, ha!). On the other hand, the "radio" portion of H-B's shows were a delight. The theme songs, the bulk of which were written by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera themselves, were irresistible lumps of sugar and spice that stick in one's head for days at a time. Even the "underscore" music -- the little runs that accompany a character's action -- is a guilty pleasure in itself, and was ironically born out of budgetary limitations as well: H-B couldn't afford lush, full-length mini-symphonies of the type for which Carl Stalling was famous. Instead, they made use of Capitol Records large selection of "needle-drop" recordings -- short, prerecorded bits that producers could use over and over at a low "rental" price. Between these themes and underscores (and H-B's trademark pokes at early rock & roll), Hanna-Barbera (and their resident musical genius Hoyt Curtin) gave cartoons a whole new type of sound.
This four-disc set, handsomely packaged in a fairy-tale-style "picnic basket" with handle, openings on both sides of the top, and a booklet made to look like the napkin that covers the goodies, doesn't miss a trick. The first two discs, "Hanna-Barbera Classics" and "More Hanna-Barbera Classics," deliver complete opening and closing title music, bumps and classic underscores from more H-B shows than you can remember, concentrating on the early work like Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw, but also venturing through the Scooby Doo years and up into Hong Kong Phooey. The sound is deliciously clear, the liner notes nice and meaty, and a few of the more popular shows' themes, likeTop Cat and The Jetsons, have even been preserved in stereo. The booklet seems apologetic that some tunes had to be made off a "composite" instead of the master tapes, and include commercial messages; in actuality, the composite versions are a bonus and the clean versions appear on the disc as well. The booklet even gets irreverent from time to time, calling the Dastardly & Muttley theme song "insipid" and mocking the studio's frugality.
Volume three, the "Best of the Flintstones: Stone-Age Melodies," covers all the ground you could ask for; there's Pebbles and Bamm Bamm's hit "Let the Sun Shine In," Fred and Barney's oft-repeated "Happy Anniversary Quartet," and numbers from guests on the show including Hoagy Carmichael, the Beau Brummels, and James Darren. Surprises include the James Bond-knockoff theme (in stereo) from the feature film The Man Called Flintstone and an odd number called "They'll Never Split Us Apart," from a 1966 TV special that featured Fred and Barney as a two-headed caterpillar! Volume Four, "Hanna-Barbera, the Greatest Sound FX Ever," is best to only break out when you need some boings and ka-bongs for your home movies. Too much of the disc is filled with poor, modern-day approximations of the characters' voices offering answering machine messages and such. Whatever. There's more than enough coolness on the first three discs to worry about it -- and if you wiggle the "basket" enough, Yogi Bear moves just as well as he does in the real cartoons!
4 stars -- Ken Lieck


CHEAP TRICK

Sex, America, Cheap Trick (Epic Legacy)

Today's pop-minded revisionists would have you believe that Cheap Trick is the seminal under-recognized post-punk influence of the Seventies. Not an entirely unfair claim, but before you clear a space at the table next to the Ramones, let's separate the band's output from the nostalgia of roller skating to "I Want You to Want Me" or calling the Top-40 station to dedicate "She's Tight" to stuck-up junior high school girls. In spite of a number of great songs and a live presence that's as reliable as an old friend, Cheap Trick never exactly reinvented anything or rose to the forefront of new musical directions. However, they were a rock oasis in a Top-40 world emasculated by disco, refusing to succumb to a privileged, boring life behind the velvet ropes. Their "trick" was a firm grasp on the meat-and-taters heartland rock aesthetic combined with a profound reverence for melodic British pop gems from the mid and late Sixties. Cheap Trick's bar-band side is best showcased here on five previously unreleased selections from a 1977 show at the Whiskey. Their versions of the Move's "Down on the Bay" and Bob Dylan's "Mrs. Henry" are particularly hungry. The band's Brit-pop tendencies are most obvious on the George Martin-produced material (especially "World's Greatest Lover" and "Everything Works If You Let It"), but perhaps best realized on the songs from Next Position Please, the band's 1984 stiff produced by Todd Rundgren. One thing you begin to notice about halfway through this 4-CD set is that producers tend to have their way with Cheap Trick, but to the band's credit, only one (Richie Zito, one of the co-conspirators behind "The Flame") really manages to whitewash the band's Midwestern roots in favor of radio-ready slickness. Thankfully, Cheap Trick's flirtation with the "dinosaur act plus outside songwriter equals hit" equation is explored here only for the sake of completion. Still, couldn't some of the material from Busted been replaced with more nuggets from Cheap Trick and In Color? Most notable among the absentees are Terry Reid's "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace" and "Downed," both of which were used to optimum effect in Jonathan Kaplan's 1978 suburban teen-age riot epic, Over the Edge. You can't help but wonder about the band's future relevance by the time you get to the mediocrity of disc four, but the set-closing 1995 single "Come on Christmas" (a remake of "Come On Come On" done to benefit a charity in the band's hometown of Rockford, Illinois) is a two and a half minute reaffirmation of Cheap Trick's ability to crank `em out. This box set is no earth-shattering revelation, but it's fun enough to ride again and again.
3 1/2 stars -- Greg Beets


SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK:
THE BOX SET!

(ABC/Kid Rhino)

"Oh, the memories!" people will gush. "I remember these from when I was growing up!" Yeah, there's nostalgia value here, not to mention the fact that remembering those "a noun is a person, place or thing" jingles probably saved your butt in class more than a few times. The fact is, though, that Schoolhouse Rock far transcends simple kitsch. These songs, as well as their accompanying animated shorts, were written by people who has sense, talent, and freedom to create, much like the Termite Terrace team that created your favorite Looney Tune characters. The result was a set of incredibly catchy songs that you actually wanted to hear over and over again despite the fact that they were teaching you basic math, history, science, and grammar.
Last year's Schoolhouse Rock Rocks album, featuring alternative bands covering songs from the series, could almost be construed as a plot by the original creators to prove that no one could do 'em better than the originals. This box set of those originals (actually, it comes in the form of a sturdy, three-ring binder holding four CDs -- one for each "class" -- and a 30-page "composition" book featuring the story behind the songs) is further proof. It's also as complete as one could hope for, though nitpickers may take issue with some of the decisions that the producers had to make. For one thing, "Multiplication Rock" was the only one of the four subjects that were originally released as an album (back in 1973), and those re-recorded stereo tracks, rather than the original cartoon soundtracks are used here. As a rule, the initial feeling that something's not quite right wears off quickly, as the recordings are sonically superior and the songs vary little from their cartoon counterparts.
On the remaining three discs, "Grammar Rock," "America Rock," and "Science Rock," the tracks are all monaural and come from the master music tapes when possible, and from the cartoon masters when the original music tracks couldn't be found. That leaves a few numbers, like "Interjections!," with some irritatingly overbearing sound effects, but by and large, the sound is just fine. Most people's favorite Grammar Rocker, "Conjunction Junction," actually benefits from mono, with the jazzy swagger of its "What's your function?" query booming out like a good old 78. One beautifully surprising exception comes in the middle of "America Rock," when the tender "Preamble," my personal favorite song of the whole series, suddenly splits into room-filling stereophonic sound. The booklet makes no allusion to this whatsoever.
Bonus tracks are in abundance here, with selections from the "Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips" series (which didn't last long because advancing technology made the songs obsolete so quickly) and the newer "Money Rock" series (which sound a little too "desperate-to-be-Tom-Lehrer"). To round things out are two tracks from the "Schoolhouse Rock Rocks" disc, including the Lemonheads' version of "My Hero, Zero." Yes, that's the one with guest vocals from Gibby Haynes. You just can't escape him anywhere....
4 stars -- Ken Lieck


CARLY SIMON

Clouds in My Coffee 1965-1995 (Arista)

One hundred, 200, 300 years from now Carly Simon may be just another name on the Dead Sea Scrolls of the pre-computer age, but "You're So Vain" will still be played on the oldies station. It's about as perfect a pop song as you could ever wish for. "Nobody Does It Better" may be as good (the best James Bond theme, certainly), and though Simon didn't pen the only reason to see The Spy Who Loved Me (Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch did), she did write "Anticipation" and "Haven't Got Time for the Pain" -- two pretty memorable pop standards in their own right. Okay, so maybe they were TV commercials; Simon still deserves recognition. Three CDs worth? That's another question. Though two other Simon best ofs already exist, the first CD of Clouds in My Coffee 1965-1995, "The Hits" is probably the only CD of hers you'll ever need. It includes all the aforementioned songs, old standbys like "Jesse," "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," and worthy newer "hits" like "Let the River Run" from the Working Girl soundtrack and "Touched by the Sun" from 94's well-received Letters Never Sent album. As with the bulk of the 56 songs herein, Simon's pen was busy or co-busy. Funny then that her cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" casts a pall over this set's second disc, "Miscellaneous & Unreleased." This is the portion of the program that makes collectors take note, yet despite some strong soundtrack work (most notably Simon's contribution to Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"), the best song on disc two is, "We Have No Secrets," a plain ol' album cut from '72. Disc three, the aptly titled "Cry Yourself to Sleep" is nice, weaving Simon's love of children's songs into the fabric of this collection -- and highlighting her Barbra Streisand dyanetics -- yet it leaves one wondering whether Clouds... might not have benefited from a tighter edit. Say, that song about Warren Beatty sure is a good one....
3 stars -- Raoul Hernandez


COWABUNGA! THE SURF BOX

(Rhino)

Growing up in Southern California in the early Sixties, surf music was part of the soundtrack of my life. The first surf record I can vividly recall hearing was the Beach Boys' "Surfin" when I was an impressionable sixth-grader. The Beach Boys even opened the first shopping mall in my neighborhood that same year, and by the time I'd reached junior high the social cliques had rigidly divided into surfers (who sported pendletons and often dyed their hair blond) and greasers (who were "hard guys" that wore big bomber jackets and greasy hair). I can remember Dick Dale & the Del-Tones being the hottest live band in SoCal with "Miserlou" at Number One on the charts for weeks on end. Little did we know then that Dick Dale was of Lebanese descent and the tune was actually derived from a Mediterranean folk melody.
Yeah, I really dug those bitchin' surf instrumentals like "Surfer's Stomp" by the Mar-kets, "Bustin' Surfboards" by the Tornadoes and, of course, "Pipeline" by the Chantays. Remember how the deejays use to close out each hour with an instrumental before going into the news? How was I to know these were just white-boys-on-reverb derivations of black R&B combos like Bill Doggett and blues guitar heroes like Freddie King (the album "Freddie King Goes Surfing" is nothing more than a reissue of an earlier instrumental album with a new title and a surf motif on the cover). By the time I'd reached high school we were hitchiking to Santa Monica almost everyday during the summer to go bodysurfing and ogle the blond surfer chicks -- "Surf City here we come!" The Sunrays' "I Live for the Sun" was our theme and "Endless Summer" was the mondo movie.
But the times they were a'changin'. Sure, the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean were still plenty popular in L.A. but a lot of boss English bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were now all over the radio and after hearing that guy, Bob Dylan, sing "Like a Rolling Stone," it was becoming harder to listen to songs about woodies (cars, not hard-ons), shootin' the curl, and surfer girls who never looked twice at a curly-haired Jewish kid anyway. By the middle of high school the surfers were turning into hippies and the greasers were soon sent to Vietnam. The surf guitar sound was quickly becoming louder, harder, and more jangly, transforming first into folk-rock and then the flowering of psychedelia. Even the Beach Boys were sending out "good vibrations." Innocence had ended, the beach party was over.
Now, 30 years later, Rhino has come out with this ultra-cool 4-CD set of all this primo music I grew up with. I'm really amazed how many of these tunes I still remember hearing on L.A. radio. It's seriously rattled my memory bank. And now I come to find that while I've been listening to jazz and raising a family there's been a surf revival in the past decade or so with all these bands featured here I've never heard of, except for Austin's Teisco Del Rey, Finland's Laika & the Cosmonauts, and California's Mermen. I guess Jimi Hendrix was wrong when he prophesied, "...and you'll never hear surf music again." Now, when my family is asleep, I pull out these bitchin' tunes by Dick Dale, Eddie & the Showmen, and the Belaires and dance the Surfer Stomp and the Hully Gully in my office. Surf's up, dude!
4 1/2 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg


CHELO SILVA

La Reina Tejana del Bolero (Arhoolie)

Since left-wing gringo journalists like myself tend to focus so much attention on the accordion drive of working-class conjunto music, it's easy for us to forget that not all Tejanos in the earlier part of this century were doing the polka in beer-splashed roadhouses. There was, despite the weighty forces of racist oppression, a thriving Mexican-American middle class that preferred the sounds of the orquesta -- the Tex-Mex version of the big band, with saxophones, trumpets, and clarinets, with perhaps a Spanish guitar to give it a distinctly Latin identity. One of the most popular vocalists of that era -- and one who sprang up from working-class roots, and also performed with conjuntos -- was Chelo Silva. The Brownsville-raised Silva -- backed here by some superb but unidentified musicians -- specialized in the haunting bolero, a choice made easy by her throaty, sexy voice. All the drama, pain, and love that boleros should evoke were as organic to her voice as the very vocal chords and air that produced the beautiful sounds. From the first listen of this fine, single-disc addition to Arhoolie's Tejano Roots series, it's easy to understand why, unlike many other American acts, Silva enjoyed great renown and touring success in Mexico as well as Texas. All tracks here were recorded during her heyday from 1958-64 for the legendary South Texas label Ideal, except five tracks of particular historical note at the end: Silva, late in her life, appeared at the 1983 Tejano/Conjunto Festival in San Antonio with Flaco Jimenez's conjunto, and Arhoolie owner Chris Strachwitz, hearing the performance broadcast over KCOR radio in his car, grabbed a hand-size recorder and held it up to the speakers. The sound quality on these last few tracks is poor, and Silva's voice was quite faded, but they are still noteworthy testaments to the passion she could still muster, and the equal passion that Strachwitz has for this music.
4 1/2stars -- Lee Nichols


MEAN OLD WORLD: THE BLUES FROM 1940-94

(Smithsonian)


AMOS MILBURN

Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie Woogie, 1946-55 (Capitol)


PEE WEE CRAYTON

The Complete Aladdin and Imperial Recordings (Capitol)

In terms of a relatively succinct yet comprehensive primer to modern blues, it's hard to beat the Smithsonian's 4-CD box set, Mean Old World. The collection is bookended nicely by Memphis Minnie's 1940 tribute to one of the original blues singers, Ma Rainey -- overtly binding this "modern" music to its predecessors -- and a selection from acoustic guitarist Corey Harris' 1994 Alligator debut, which also returns the music to the rich soil of the Deep South. In between these two tracks, the set covers virtually every blues artist and stylist of renown and many of the genre's most important and influential recordings. The impressive 90-page booklet that accompanies the set not only includes a history of post-war blues, but also a track-by-track narrative of each artist and song. If you're just discovering the blues or are a relative novice, this is an outstanding introductory collection. If, on the other hand, you've been collecting this music for decades, you'll already have most of these tunes. Nonetheless, there are some delicious obscurities here, including the Mezzrow-Bechet Septet's jazz blues of "Blood on the Moon" with Hot Lips Page, and Texas bluesman Li'l Son Jackson's "Cairo Blues." Conversely, do we really need another reissuance of Freddie King's "Hideaway" or Guitar Slim's "The Things I Used to Do"? I was thrilled to see the inclusion of lesser-known but important bluesmen like Robert Nighthawk and Johnny Shines, but where's Clifton Chenier? We could argue why this 80-track collection is so heavy on Chicago blues and guitar players and lacking in pianists and Louisiana artists but that might only reveal my biases and not serve the Smithsonian's ultimate purpose of presenting a pretty damn good primer to the blues.
If you're into a more in-depth presentation of the blues, look no further than the on-going Capitol Blues Collection. Now in its third phase, this fine reissue series takes individual artist and presents their recorded output for a particular record label, in this case the L.A.-based Aladdin/Imperial family. Texas bluesmen have been particularly prevalent throughout this series and the third phase is no exceptional. Houston-born pianist Amos Milburn was a tremendously popular stylist most known for his rollicking boogies including the classics, "Chicken Shack Boogie" and "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer." This 3-CD set, Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie Woogie: The Best of Amos Milburn, 1946-55, is a pure delight from start to finish. You can't go wrong with this one! Unfortunately I can't say the same for the set by Rockdale-born, Austin-raised blues guitarist Pee Wee Crayton. A disciple of T-Bone Walker, Crayton's best work was recorded on the West Coast where most of the musicians and the sound were transplanted from Texas. All but two tracks on Pee Wee's Blues: The Complete Aladdin and Imperial Records, however, were cut in New Orleans. While I'm a huge fan of the Crescent City sound of whatever era, I just don't feel like these 1954-55 sides cut the mustard. "Runnin" Wild" has always been a favorite of mine, but overall Crayton's stinging guitar just doesn't mesh with those riffing horns and piano triplets. For dedicated collectors only.
(Mean Old World) 4 stars
(Amos Milburn) 5 stars
(Pee Wee Crayton) 2 1/2 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg


ERIC CLAPTON

Crossroads 2 (Polydor Chronicles)

Before the beer commercials and unplugged resurgence, there was a bluesman they simply called God. Crossroads 2 is the reminder why. Like the box that preceding this one eight years ago -- and started the superstar race for the bigger and better boxed collections -- Crossroads 2 is a weighty anthology, encompassing four hours of live recordings that breaks down into 26 unreleased tracks and 35 total jams/songs from the period between 1974 and 1978. But Crossroads 2's first and foremost value is as a blues set, with the live setting allowing for Clapton's 16-song blues cover repertory to actually breathe on its own. Still, the set starts auspiciously with a tired set of rehashed E.C. Was Here re-edits, notable mostly for how nicely they slide into a perfectly slow-handed take on Hendrix's "Little Wing." From there, Clapton lightens up and Crossroads 2 picks up considerably -- to the point where the percussive joy of a Carlos Santana/Clapton 24-minute tag team on "Eyesight for the Blind/ Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?" will carry you through an overblown "Stormy Monday" and painfully dull regurgitation of "Wonderful Tonight." And by design, that second wave of potential boredom is also offset nicely by a looser look at the typical classic rock hitstring of "Layla," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and "Cocaine," that ought to please casual fans, as well as a classy Stevie Wonder cover of "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" and a showstopping workout of Otis Rush's "Double Trouble. " And while four hours from only four years may be a bit much, especially if it was necessary to include four takes of "Rambling on My Mind," there's certainly enough of Clapton's slow burns and fast techniques (see "The Core" and "Badge") to make Crossroads 2 a worthy follow-up to its predecessor.
3 1/2 stars-- Andy Langer

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