Luther Dickinson “Hambone’s Meditations” Sutro Park
Widespread Panic’s keyboardist, JoJo Hermann, changed my life in the early ’90’s by giving me a cassette tape of Fat Possum Records’ release of Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long”. From there, I got into R.L. Burnside and that’s something that will stay with me for as long as I live. I also remember him telling me around that same time about a group of young kids in Mississippi that were “going to do it” called the North Mississippi All-Stars. I didn’t think much about it until I got to Chicago to see Burnside at Buddy Guy’s Legends and he was playing with some young white kid that turned out to be Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars. Then, I knew that JoJo had been right. They were going to do it. And now they’ve done it. They’re playing on the world stage. But I’ve never heard Dickinson do it in the studio the way he does it on stage. His latest solo release is called “Hambone’s Meditations.” It’s comprised of acoustic instrumentals so it’s not as raunchy as what he does with NMA, but it’s raw, and it’s immediate, and it’s probably my favorite thing I’ve heard from him on wax. It’s a start.
I read a Dickinson quote about one of his recent NMA albums that he was trying to make as raw as possible. He thought it still came out too clean. It’s nice to know that someone is trying. And it’s a testament to how hard it must be to get that feeling across in a studio setting because, Lord knows, he’s the man for the job. “Hambone’s Meditations” is the sound of a badass guitar man doing his thing in a room with a microphone in front of him. Gloriously simple. You’d have to sit down and really focus to recognize these works as “songs.” They sound more like… meditations, I guess. It’s easy to get lost in a tune that’s more than three minutes long without vocals, but there are movements, and refrains, and themes, and hooks all around. Still, it sounds like Dickinson went where the music led him and I imagine how liberating it must be to have the chops to let these sounds have their way through you. His virtuosity as a player only gets in the way of the flow on one occasion that finds him flying around the fret board like a water bug on speed. It’s nice to have the ability, I’m sure. But I feel like Dickinson is at his best on “Hambone’s” when he’s settled into a killer acoustic groove rather than shredding. I can’t pick out the gospel numbers that he anthologized in the album’s last two songs (“Old Gospel Medley I and II”), and that’s super cool. I’ve heard “Amazing Grace” enough as it is. I’m ready for something fresh, and “Hambone’s Meditations” does it. I hope he applies the “Hambone’s” recording techniques to future NMA efforts. He may finally find the sound he’s after if he does…
This is a true Indy release from Sutro Park in San Francisco. It’s so Indy, in fact, that it didn’t include an inner sleeve. There is some surface noise to contend with as a result of the pressing (or maybe the lack of an inner sleeve), and there are zero liners. There’s a lot of good acoustic guitar music on the single disc though. And that’s the sound I was after.
Sam Cooke “Night Beat” Analogue Productions
I’ve never investigated Sam Cooke’s music. I’m not sure why not. I’ve never read “Moby Dick” either, but you know it’s going to be a great ride when you finally do. Well, my ship has come in. I saw that Analogue Productions had released Cooke’s “Night Beat” on double 45rpm vinyl and I decided to jump in. It’s a whale of an album, and much has become clear to me since I began exploring it.
The first thing I learned is that there would have been no Marvin Gaye without Sam Cooke. (Is it a coincidence that they both added an “E” to the end of their last names?) Marvin’s timbre was shaped from Cooke’s tree, and I can’t imagine that Gaye would dispute this if he were alive to do so. (Another tragic similarity is that both artists died by gunshot.) I also learned that Sam Cooke had an almost superhuman control of his vocal inflections that set him apart from, and set the template for, all great soul singers to follow. I’d always known that Cooke had influenced most every big name rhythm and blues artist from the genre’s classic period, but really hearing his voice for the first time was like finding the missing piece of a beautiful puzzle. Or the original photo that the puzzle was patterned after. Al Green, for instance, may not share the textural similarities that Gaye does with Cooke, but Green’s control of his voice and the ways in which he chooses to use it are undeniably linked to Cooke’s influence. I may have put this project off for so long due to my natural aversion to songs like “Cupid” or my indifference to “You Send Me,” in particular. The latter is too watered down for my taste in soul, the former is a lame song. There’s nothing lame about what’s happening on “Night Beat.” Instead of “Wonderful World,” it has “Mean Old World.” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” in place of “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Sixteen-year-old Billy Preston adds some wicked organ work to “Little Red Rooster,” and the whole record was recorded in three nights. The spontaneity is palpable. Basically, these recordings are a little more blue, more gritty than Cooke’s more popular work. And I’m hooked. I’m ready to dig deeper, to find some early gospel era Soul Stirrers on wax. I’ve always liked what I heard from Cooke (except “Cupid”), but was never moved by it. “Trouble Blues” has cured me of all that. “Night Beat” is from 1963, but it could have been from ’53 or ’73. Songs and performances of this quality don’t age. “Timeless” is a word that gets thrown around lazily, but nothing is more applicable to the songs found on “Night Beat.” It’s a resounding reminder that sometimes you have to dig a little deeper in the well to find the really cold water. That’s a project that has just begun for me with regards to Sam Cooke. The next step is to find his most basic recordings. The ones where you can best hear that voice…
At this point, I trust Analogue Productions implicitly. Their 45rpm releases provide amazing sonic experiences even if they do house the double record sets in dinky outer covers. The works demand a sturdy gatefold, and the cost does too, but the quality of the records is beyond question. AP’s “Night Beat” puts you right in the studio with Cooke and his band. It’s a little funky, there’s smoke in the air, and a couple of shady characters waiting outside with their hands concealed. It’s a risk worth taking, a whale worth chasing. Come on in.
Bob Dylan and the Band “The Basement Tapes” Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
I’ve needed a vinyl copy of “The Basement Tapes” for so long that I’d almost forgotten about it. I put a toe in the water a couple of times, placed some eBay bids, but never followed through because I either got priced out of contention or couldn’t find a suitable copy. As it turns out, all that was for a good reason. Mobile Fidelity released their version last month rendering this search emphatically over. I’m tempted to buy a second copy for when I wear the first one out. It’s like being 20 years old again which is roughly the age I was when I first started digging around in the “Basement.” It’s glorious.
Normally, I’d want to supplement my reissue with a pristine copy of the original, but I’m sitting that project out for the “Basement Tapes” as there really isn’t an “original” copy anyway. The songs were recorded in the late ’60’s during sessions so notorious that we don’t need to go over them here. The information is out there. But they never saw the light of day until the mid-’70’s when the original Woodstock basement tracks had been doctored up in a fancy California studio with overdubs and the whole bit. Now, that may sully the romance for some, and I would certainly love to get my hands on the original rough versions, but you can’t argue with the quality of the final product. “The Basement Tapes” is a classic melding of two of rock’s most vital forces. Dylan had already inserted himself into history’s back pages while the Band was just getting ready for lift off. The humor and intelligence in these grooves is rivaled only by the brutish muscle behind the playing and delivery. Check out “Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)” if you doubt me on the muscle or “Please, Mrs. Henry” if you’re looking for a laugh. I don’t mean Weird Al funny. This is serious humor. The kind that’ll cut you if you grab it by the wrong end. This music feels like something crafted by a world class woodworker. Or maybe leather. It conjures visions of sturdy barns, sweeping sky views, sea voyages, and tavern sing-alongs. Timeless, primordial, intense. If I may insert myself into the story for a second: I saw Dylan perform “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” at Madison Square Garden in November of 2002. I recognized it instantly, but didn’t realize it was the only time the song had been performed live until the fanatic behind me let everyone in the arena know. God, bless him. It’s nice to realize your experience while it’s happening rather than in hindsight. It doesn’t happen that often so you savor it when it does. I wonder if Dylan and The Band realized what they were creating while they were in that basement rolling tape. It’s hard to imagine that they did. The weight of such responsibility could be crushing. Or transcendent. I hope the surviving players are savoring it now…
At first, an audiophile presentation of recordings made in a basement forty-five years ago seems a little incongruent. Once you hear MoFi’s version of “The Basement Tapes,” it will all make sense, I promise. To me, this is the definitive version of one of rock’s ultimate relics. As Greil Marcus says in the original liners: “The sound is clear, immediate, and direct; as intimate as a living room and as slick as a barbed wire fence.” MoFi gets a little closer than the living room. They get in your head. Bon voyage!
Elvis Costello “Almost Blue” Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Speaking of Mobile Fidelity, they’ve been working over Elvis Costello’s catalog for a while now, and just released their version of his “Almost Blue.” It was originally released in 1981 and consists entirely of country music covers. This must have seemed radical at the time because the original release came with warning labels advising of the record’s country contents. It was recorded in Nashville and the whole bit. It was Costello’s first record not produced by Nick Lowe. Add it all up, and you get a bunch of quality content that sounds… like it was recorded in Nashville in 1981.
Costello’s records are often not as agreeable to me sonically as I’d hope. Like Springsteen’s best work, you can’t quibble with the content, but you can spend as much time as there is in a day wishing that they’d been recorded with more feeling and less formula. Less so with regards to Costello’s work. It’s always listenable, just not ideal. I thought it would be interesting to see if Billy Sherrill’s production improved on Lowe’s. I prefer Lowe’s. “Almost Blue” is just too shiny for my taste. Not a lot of depth. Everything feels right out front, glossy as a hooker’s lipstick, and clean as a science lab. No ambient noise whatsoever and everything is dangerously sharp. We started down a dark road in 1981, and we may never find our way back. Having said all that, at least Costello was making sounds with identifiable instruments. And this record will probably remain in my collection until I get older, lose my edge, and stop worrying so damned much about authenticity and raw emotions. The songs are great. I saw Costello perform at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a few years back, before I’d ever heard of “Almost Blue.” In fact, that was the performance that let me know I was a bona fide Costello fan rather than a passive appreciator of some of his songs. His powerhouse vocals were a revelation to me, especially when he was joined onstage by Gillian Welsh and Emmylou. It made perfect sense. Costello performed a few songs from “Almost Blue” on that beautiful day in the park including “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” but not my personal favorite “Hot Burrito #1” (which is mysteriously listed as “I’m Your Toy” here). I wish he’d go back and rerecord “Almost Blue” into a single monaural microphone with T-Bone Burnett. And “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” There is one human sonic element during “Brown To Blue,” but it’s a mistake. And not a brilliant mistake that adds to the magic. It’s a distorted pedal steel lick that’s as out of place as Costello himself must have seemed in Nashville circa 1981. If it was left in the mix in hopes of honoring Costello’s punk roots, he didn’t take it far enough. He should have done it twice.
Costello may have had the misfortune of coming of age during history’s sonic nadir or he may have just preferred bright, clean recordings. He pulls it off better than most, but if I’m going to buy an Elvis Costello record, I’m going to get it from Mobile Fidelity. Their versions take the edge off the originals and liven them up enough for consumption. I’m glad they’re up to the task. I’ll keep going back to them until they miss. “Imperial Bedroom” is coming soon so their streak should remain intact, but, so far, “Almost Blue” is at the bottom of the heap.
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra “Ellington Indigos” Impex Records
There are so many things to like about Duke Ellington that it’s tough to know where to start. If you like prolific artists, Duke is your guy. He’s also your guy if you like laid back jazz, or jump jazz, or experimental, big-band, or swing jazz. Some of those sub-genres are probably redundant. And I’m sure he has some misfires in his enormous discography somewhere, but I haven’t hit on any so far. “Ellington Indigos” is the fifth Ellington album on vinyl that we’ve explored at this site and it’s the sixth in my collection. I think it’s also my favorite. Here’s why…
“Indigos” is balanced in the way that Leo DiCaprio’s spinning top is balanced in “Inception.” It’ll go forever. “Money Jungle” is an important album, but sometimes Mingus sounds like he’s challenging the Duke with his bass which can be a distraction. “Piano In The Foreground” allows us to hear the Duke finesse his keyboard, one of life’s greatest treats, but it barely scratches the surface of what he can do as a performing musician. “Jazz Party” is full-throttle Big Band Duke with so many glorious sounds and textures that finding your way around in them is like trying to figure out where you are in a David Lynch film. “Indigos” showcases Duke’s playing, his abilities as a band director, and the individual talents of the players he hired while still leaving plenty of space between the notes to stretch out and luxuriate in the universe that Ellington created for us all. The liners on the back cover describe this as a “dance” record, but the definition of “dance” is likely far from what it was when these songs were released in 1958. I would think of Ellington’s more up-tempo work as “dance” music. These are ballads. This is “make-out” music or “fine dining” music. It’s music for people that genuinely enjoy well crafted compositions played by world class talents. Normally, the album’s lone vocal passage found on “Autumn Leaves” would feel out of place to me, and I was jarred from my reverie on first listen, but a second spin finds the vocals right at home next to the singular violin which gives the tune a European vibe to my ears. Granted, I’ve never been to Europe, but I get images of row boats along the Grand Canal in Venice when I hear that violin. I’m happy to hear any of Ellington’s previously mentioned works at most any time, but there is positively no time at which I won’t be in the mood for “Indigos.” I feel the same way about Al Green’s “Call Me” and Cannonball’s “Somethin’ Else.” The thing that the three works have in common, I guess, is that they’re all pretty laid back, but bring enough energy to keep you alert. It’s like floating. A feeling that everything is alright now. There’s familiarity and spontaneous invention. It’s a high wire act without fear of falling…
This is my first foray into the world of Impex Records, and these folks nailed it. There’s no surface noise on this single heavy disc, and the pressing is as deep and black as the stillest lake your mind can conjure. The instruments are alive and vibrant with excellent separation and clarity. Impex uses all analog tapes and analog mastering, and “Indigos” ranks as one of the warmest, most welcoming records in my collection. It’s a sonic massage. They made 2500 of them. Get one.