In the cold January of 2001, what does one do with the balance left on his record store gift certificate? If you’re me, you get obscure depression era folk music – to cheer yourself up.
Okay, so maybe it's not party music, but I found great comfort in Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. This six CD set covers the odd - sometimes very odd - folk songs that floated around this great country of ours during the twenties and thirties. It kicks off with a singer who makes Grandpa Jones sound like Tom Jones. Of course, it’s about the perfidy of wimmin. From there, we get to thwarted love, misunderstood outlaws, murder and fiddles, in various combinations. The cast of characters includes Stagerlee, Frankie and Johnny, President Roosevelt (the second one), John Henry, King Kong and God. How do you feel about old people singing? I ask because everyone here sounds old. But I'll bet none of them were over twenty five at the time. And every once in a while, there’s the odd lyric you could swear you’ve heard before. And you did, because Bob Dylan “borrowed” it.
I somehow rated a present that year, and got Ken Burns’s Jazz – Charlie Parker. It’s easy to go wrong when trying to get a good compilation of a major jazz artist, but this single CD sounds fine to me. Parker was a brilliant improviser, with major chops, who, along with Dizzy Gillespie, revolutionized jazz. How did they even think of songs like “Koko” and “Salt Peanuts”, let alone play them?
Now playing: Charlie Parker - Salt Peanuts
Take This Job and Shove It:
Around this time I changed jobs, and decided to stamp this major life event with new music. (I did something similar when I tried my first slice of anchovie pizza, and got Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies.)
Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew had been calling out to me since it came out in 1970. I held off because I suspected that it would be one of those albums whose reputation was greater than the actual music. Overrated, for short. I can’t possibly appreciate it for what it represents in the evolution of jazz. It’s kind of like trying to appreciate sound pictures when you didn’t live through the silent era. So, yes, to my ears it’s overrated, and you can get a shorter, sharper sampling of similar music on the great A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
Then there was the Fugees’ The Score, which was a bit out of my reach at the time. Stressful times call out for soothing, familiar music. The Fugees were neither, and so I put it aside. Now, eight years later I’m hearing it more, but neither cover (“No Woman No Cry”, “Killing Me Softly”) sounds different enough from the originals for me to care much. Good, not great.
Earth Wind and Fire’s Greatest Hits - If you asked me what type of music I didn’t like in the 70s, this would be it. Rhythm, horns, a male vocalist singing in a high register, style, commercial appeal, etc. - all no-nos for an awkward teenager like me. But this isn’t bad at all, their version of “Got To Get You Into My Life” notwithstanding. “September” is simply undeniable. If you don’t like it, check your pulse. And the rest is much better than I ever realized.
I invoked the rule “have someone else buy something for you that you may never get around to getting on your own”. This resulted in Nirvana’s “Unplugged”, which is a good record with some great moments, but only “On a Plane” offers something different from the original version. “Where Did You Sleep?” is the grim highlight at the end. Miss you, Kurt.
The Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” held up very well, even if I didn’t need to hear “Brown Sugar” or “Bitch” ever again. “Sway” and “Dead Flowers” are great, “Moonlight Mile” is a classic, and “Wild Horses” just never seems to tire out.
The Calm at Labor Day:
So there I am in my favorite downtown record store, only up to the B’s when a bunch of firemen burst in. Oh no, I’m thinking, how hot and smoky would it have to get before I aborted? It turned out to be a smoke condition down the block, so I got back to my obsession.
Two weeks later, these very same firemen would get a call that would be anything but routine. Did even one of them make it out alive, I wonder? But in the meantime, I, not knowing what was about to come, really enjoyed playing the CDs I got.
Like the gentle folk and noisy guitar extremes of Yo La Tengo’s “Electro Pura”, which is almost as good as their masterpiece “I Hear the Heart Beat As One”.
Now playing: Yo La Tengo - Tom Courtenay
Van Morrison’s “Bang Masters” is okay, but it’s really just an awkward stepping stone between Them and “Astral Weeks” (which I’m still waiting to be remastered).
And although I don’t think you can ever have too much noisy guitar, Archer’s of Loafs’s “Vee Vee” and Sleater Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” made me rethink my position. While both are good, neither could quite win me over. The latter was a particular disappointment since I’m a big fan of their previous one “Call the Doctor”.
Massive Attack’s “Protection” opens with the fantastic title song, but the rest of the record just can’t keep up. It averages out to pretty good, but the strings bug me. Better was Tricky’s subsequent soundscape “Maxinquay”, which offers no hint of salvation.
Now playing: Massive Attack - Protection
Thelonius Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” is considered the one to get by him. It’s very good, but I have several others records by him that I like even more. (Misterioso!)
But the one that got me through the time after those first two weeks was the wonderful, spacey voice and chimy guitars of Luna’s “Penthouse”. (link) What was pretty before 9/11, also seemed regretful and resigned after it. Perfect for 9/12. And I wouldn’t be able to listen to anything else for a while. (Hell, I heard a guy blasting Enya out of his car that week. Even I couldn’t blame him.)
Now playing: Luna - Moon Palace
It took a pre 9/11 BMG order, arriving in late September for me to finally get a CD that came out this decade – Outkast’s “Stankonia”, which is a perfect example of music that isn’t in my favorite genre (hip hop) but that even I can tell is great. This fast, funny, wordy and often thoughtful CD is what I put on when I’m in the mood to take on a difficult book. (link BOB, Ms.
Now playing: OutKast - Ms. Jackson
My wife had to console herself with Andrea Bocelli, and if you have to as well, please get Sogno, and not that power ballad collection disguised as Euro-sophistication Romanza. Christ.
John Coltrane’s Blue Train was a disappointment at first because the title track turned out to not be that amazing song I heard on the radio twenty years ago (which I’m still trying to track down). But I’m past it now, and this is a very good record - as good a place to start getting into Coltrane as “My Favorite Things” which I got at the end of the year. Some day I’ll find that song…
Then there was Iris Dement’s “My Life”, which my family can’t stand because of Iris’s country vibrato and the traditional-type melodies that scare off the city folk. Otherwise, it’spractically flawless. But it takes an effort, and I’ve got enough to do around the holidays. But if you're feeling like you don't matter in this world, listen to the title song.
So I retreated to comfort music, and replaced some vinyl, by getting the Velvet Underground’s “Peel Slowly and See” and Citizen Steely Dan for Christmas.
The surprising thing is that I gravitated to Steely Dan, instead of the Velvets. Considering that the former set had virtually no new music on it, you'd think I would have tired of it quickly. But it was the latter, with the extra, and often unnecessary, new stuff that put me off. And how could they leave off the official live double album, and "She's My Best Friend", one of their greatest songs? And did we really need a whole CD of demos of five songs? On the other hand, the remainder is some of the greatest rock and roll ever made.
I guess I was priding myself that my black-as-ink outlook would enable me to handle the infamous subject matter of both bands. Not so. Steely Dan was practically sweet in comparison. And as much as I wouldn’t admit it, I needed sweet.
- Anthology of Folk Music
- Luna - Penthouse
- Yo La Tengo-Electro Pura
- Charlie Parker
Two years into Our Decade and I’ve only gotten one record – Outkast - actually released in it. And I admire that record more than I love it. I guess there were worse things at the time, like the f’ing world coming to an end.