Music Review

Happy Birthday, Robert Wilkins

wilkinsRobert Wilkins, the greatest blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist most music fans never heard of, was born on January 16, 1896 (exactly 110 years ago as I write this) in Herndon, Mississippi, in the hill country a bit south of Memphis, near the top of the Mississippi Delta region that was such a musically fertile area in the early 20th century. But while Wilkins might be an obscure figure to all but rabid Delta blues fans, among those fans are the Rolling Stones, and from that comes Wilkins's one bit of mainstream fame: the Stones' "Prodigal Son" (on Beggars Banquet) is a complete ripoff of Wilkins's "That Ain't No Way to Get Along."

A mix of black and Cherokee, Wilkins was the son of a bootlegger. After the state of Mississippi expelled the senior Wilkins, Robert's mother remarried; his stepfather was Tim Oliver, a good guitarist. Wilkins was exposed to some fine local musical talents: Jim Jackson was a family friend, and itinerant musicians played at Wilkins's sister's house parties. Read more »

Evil Miles Live!

cellar_door.jpgMiles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions (Columbia Legacy)

The Cellar Door was a club in Washington, D.C. (insert Basement Tapes reference here). In the early 1970s, trumpeter Miles Davis seemingly developed an allergy to the studio, but Columbia made up for it with frequent concert recordings, most of which have never been released or had just bits and pieces cherry-picked by producer Teo Macero. Over two-thirds of this music is appearing for the first time, 35 years after it was recorded. Read more »

The Strokes: First Impressions of Earth (RCA)

The Strokes' latest record, First Impressions of Earth, is highly anticipated, and understandably so, given the band's proven ability to pen songs about love and angst with infectious downbeats and lead singer Julian Casablancas's plaintive growls. The timing of the release -- January 3 of the brand new year -- is prime time for music fans chomping at the bit to catch the first of this year's golden sounds, the only big-name release this week.

Unfortunately, First Impressions falls into the same trap that at least half of the average person's New Years resolutions do: The promise of self-actualization is met with the all-too-ordinary failure of those aims to be consummated.This record is full of promises unfulfilled, beginnings of songs that sound like happy rock and roll explosions only to dawdle and shift uneasily in their own skins. Read more »

Defunkt: Defunkt/Thermonuclear Sweat (Hannibal/Ryko)

DefunktThis two-CD reissue reminds me that back in the early ’80s, Defunkt was one of my favorite bands. I saw it play many times, most memorably a night at Danceteria when leader/singer/trombonist Joe Bowie’s older brother, trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, sat in (brother Byron was often on sax as well, in person and on record). It was an era when there was much cross-pollination between styles, when the fringes of art music and underground pop intersected and all sorts of hybrids were conceived. Defunkt mixed jazz (ranging from jagged avant-garde to edgy bebop), a particularly sharp and sweaty funk groove, the alienated, disconnected lyrics of immigrant Janos Gat, and a punk attitude to make some of the most hard-hitting, abrasive dance music this side of the Contortions (in which some of the members of Defunkt had served time). Read more »

Tri-O & Sainkho: Forgotten Streets of St. Petersburg (Leo)

TrioSainkhoTri-O & Sainkho: Forgotten Streets of St. Petersburg (Leo)

Tri-O is currently Sergey Letov (baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, Chinese flute, piccolo, swanee whistle), Alexandr Alexandrov (bassoon, swanee whistle), and Yury Parfenov (trumpet, althorn). Sainkho Namchylak is a Tuvan singer who combines the traditional vocal techniques of that region on Siberia's eastern border with Mongolia, including throat-singing that produces overtones, with classical and avant-garde influences.   Read more »

Heavy Thunder

When I heard that J. Mascis -- the lead guitarist of much admired, and recently resurrected rockers Dinosaur, Jr. -- was the drummer for new band Witch and not the singer, songwriter or guitarist, I disappointedly thought that meant he wasn't the band's front man. Watching Witch set up and play last night at the Bowery Ballroom, though, I realized my mistake. In fact, all the bands on display that night proved the defining element of music categorized as metal or acid rock is not anarchic yelling or noodling metal guitar, but the rhythms pounded out by the drums at their center. If there is a front man to a metal band, it's the thick, heavy rhythms at work on the bass drum. In that sense, Mascis remains ever the front man, this time literally front and center, with drum kit in tow. Read more »

Boards of Canada: The Campfire Headphase (Warp)


At its best, Campfire Headphase, the latest outing by electronic duo Boards of Canada, evokes what it might be like to walk through some Icelandic landscape: icy sheens, coarse static from some transistor radio off in the distance, and snow drifts blowing across wide-open plains. While the record is not without its hiccups, the band's soundscapes are, overall, deftly crafted, and make for an enjoyable listen.

Echoes, guitar strums, live drum shuffling, faint blips, synthesizer brushstrokes, and a range of other computerized sounds all feature prominently in a record that shows the band consciously shifting away from computer-reliant sounds to the integration of instruments and organic sounding elements. Read more »

Happy 30th Pattiversary

horsesPatti Smith: Horses/Horses (Arista Legacy)

Listened to now, three decades after its release, Horses still sounds like one of the top rock albums of all time. But I wonder if anyone who didn't hear it in the context of its 1975 release can fully appreciate just how pioneering it was. After all, '75 is the year that brought us Born to Run, Blood on the Tracks, Katy Lied, Fleetwood Mac, Wish You Were Here, and Barry White's Greatest Hits. Few people had noticed the New York Dolls' two albums, and the Ramones' debut wouldn't come out until 1976; not until 1977 did we get Blank Generation, Marquee Moon, and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Read more »

Imaginational Anthem: A Guitar Anthology (Tompkins Square)

ImaginationalThe finger-picking acoustic guitar instrumental is a world unto itself. The biggest continent on this world is variously named "the Takoma sound," for the John Fahey label that did so much to promote the style, and American Primitive Guitar, Fahey's choice of genre name. Born (though it didn't know it at the time) in the 1950s folk movement, it matured in the anything-goes '60s (extending into the '70s), and interest in it -- underground for so many years -- has revived at the same time as the resurrection of psychedelic folk. A key early figure in both fields is the late Sandy Bull, and some artists such as Jack Rose extend that dual legacy, but this brilliantly programmed new compilation focuses on the more purist vision. Read more »

Yu Kosuge: New York Recital Debut. Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, 11/14/05

Kosuge's debut recital here (sponsored by the S&R Foundation two years after she won its Washington Award for young artists) was a big enough event that Ambassador Hiroyasu Ando, Consul General of Japan in New York, introduced her. More importantly, Kosuge played with spectacular poise, technique, and poetry. Was she perfect? Not quite, but she'll have awhile to grow artistically.

Kosuge has lived in Europe since 1993, studying with Karl-Heinz mmerling and András Schiff, and this orientation was reflected in a mostly Austro-Germanic program. Read more »

The Passion of Sam Cooke

sam_cookeOne Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club

Night Beat

The Best of Sam Cooke (RCA Legacy)

The question of how Sam Cooke's music is received by modern listeners is raised by the juxtaposition of these three recent reissues. First, there is the smoothness of production that Cooke usually favored. Read more »

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto - Joshua Bell/Berlin Philharmonic/Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony)

joshua_bell.jpgBell and MTT combine to give this warhorse a lithe, elfin gracefulness at times (in the fast outer movements) more reminiscent of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto than of the heavily Romantic readings often heard in the Tchaikovsky. Linda Kobler's booklet notes quote Bell as calling the piece "the most intimate, elegant, almost 'balletic' warhorse I know!" Well, that's also a partial list of Bell's strengths as a player -- just add in the most beautifully silken, refined tone of any player of his young generation on record, an exquisite sense of dynamics and the technique to project clearly even in the most hushed moments, and the good taste to avoid the sort of grotesqueries that some fiddlers are resorting to in order to distinguish themselves from the crowded field in well-known repertoire. Bell doesn't show off in this music by emphasizing its difficulties, instead making it sound easy --which, really, is much more impressive, especially in the finale.  Read more »

Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City)

Silver Jews

For a fan such as myself, sitting down to listen to the Silver Jews' Tanglewood Numbers was somewhat like bumping into an old friend one hasn't seen in a long while, pleased to see that they retained qualities that drew you to them in the first place and yet changed in ways that have earned them new charm in your eyes. Indeed, Tanglewood Numbers should mark a happy reentry for old fans and a welcome introduction for those who have not yet come to know and appreciate Dave Berman's idiosyncratic, matter of truth tales and sardonic musings. With this latest record, however, Berman adds yet another set of elements to the mix: violins, Nashville swing, and, dare I say, actual happiness. Read more »

John Coltrane: One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse!/Verve/Universal)

coltrane.jpg This captures Coltrane’s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones at its 1965 peak (a few months before Trane began adding other players; by the time he went into the studio in 1966, Tyner had been replaced by Alice Coltrane) in radio broadcasts from a New York club on March 26 and May 7. Crescent and A Love Supreme had been made the previous year and The John Coltrane Quartet Plays... was being recorded contemporaneously.
Coltrane had refined his modal playing to the point where he’s playing with absolute assurance, pushing into the highest levels of imaginative expression that the style could support; soon he went further and crossed the line into free jazz. Read more »

Shirley Horn: But Beautiful - The Best of Shirley Horn (Verve)

Shirley HornWooing jazz listeners with thrillingly intimate deliveries of standards and surprises for over three decades, Shirley Horn secured a spot high in the jazz pantheon long before she died last month. Not only a superb singer, she was also an excellent pianist who prefered to accompany herself and did so once she'd gotten it through record producers' heads that that format allowed her to communicate best with her audiences. Read more »

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