- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 20 September 2011
Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi "Rome" EMI Records
Anyone paying attention knows that I'm... uh... "concerned" about the current state of popular music. The primary indicator is that I'm constantly having to reference one of a small handful of bands that are making new, vital music when I discuss records at this site. Jack White, in particular, seems to rear his pale, frazzled head quite often and probably more than any other artist working today. And that's a little bit odd because he's not my favorite out of the brain trust. Right now, that title goes to Yim Yames. But White has kept his name in the game seemingly more so now than he did when his White Stripes were together. He makes at least a cameo appearance in each monthly dispatch. This month, he makes two. Next month, he's scheduled to make one. So far. The guy has ideas and they all seem great. Right now, I'd like to talk about a project that he plays a minor "role" in and that is on a record called "Rome" by Danger Mouse and some guy named Daniele Luppi. Now, Danger Mouse is a real talent. He's one that I'll keep an eye out for and I'll check out something with his name attached to it even if I do so with a little trepidation on my heels. For instance, I wasn't as blown away by his Broken Bells project as the folks back home seemed to be, but it was good. I'll get in the mood for that record on occasion and I'll be happy I have it when I do. "Rome" is another story all together. "Rome" is one of those records that has me glued to it right now making it hard to find time for much else. I didn't see it coming, but maybe I should have. It involves two of my favorite working musicians and one that caught me completely unawares in the person of Norah Jones. Norah Jones? Allow me to explain...
...Okay, never you mind. I can't explain it. This is the soundtrack to a fake movie or something like that. I mean, it's the fake soundtrack to a movie that was never made. Not a movie that was filming and got scrapped, but a movie that was never meant to be made. I'd like for someone to go back and make the damn movie now, please. Make something worthy of this soundtrack, and you've got yourself a classic movie to watch. That's how I see it, anyway. Or how I imagine seeing it. I tried to buy a 7" record as part of this "soundtrack" in April on Record Store Day, but the kids beat me to it while I was in the Big Star section, I guess. Had I known then what I know now, there may have been a fight. Or a bribe. Probably a bribe. I'm not too big in the biceps. Anyway, this imagined movie is of the Western variety and Luppi and Danger Mouse commissioned some players from the Sergio Leone soundtracks ostensibly to make this project more authentic. It doesn't sound like vintage, authentic Western movie soundtrack music to me. It sounds modern to me, and I think that's mostly as a result of the drum sounds. Or maybe I don't know much about Western movie music. I know I don't, in fact. But I've seen the Leone Westerns and, really, the only songs on "Rome" that remind me of those movies are "Theme From Rome" and... that's it. I certainly don't think "Spaghetti Western" when I hear the music box interlude of "Morning Fog" or anything on "Rome" involving Big Jack White. His voice, I'm sorry to report, is nothing but a distraction to me in this context. That's not to say that I don't appreciate his music on "Rome," but it does seem a little out of place to me. Norah Jones is a distraction as well, but for entirely different reasons. Her vocals on "Season's Trees" are dreamy, gentlemen. I mean, hot. As the kids like to say these days, they're "hawt." I wasn't paying a lick of attention when she passed through the first time. In 2002, Norah Jones was about as much on my radar as an iPhone was. I'm thankful for both now and I don't have a problem admitting it. Hopefully, "Rome" is a sample of the direction in which Norah is taking her career now. Possibly, it's a sample of what's been happening all along, but I doubt it. I think I'd have known. Then again, if you'd have told me two weeks ago that I'd own a record on which Norah Jones upstaged Big Jack, I'd have taken you in for x-rays or shock treatment. Trust me, "Rome" is a moody, mostly instrumental, record that is perfect for chilling out, dinner dates at home, or activities best documented on less reputable sites, and Norah's vocals on "Seasons Trees" up the ante that much more. The wah-wah guitar on "The Gambling Priest" is cool too. I like everything about this one, and can't recommend it enough despite the fact that I'm stumbling around now in search of an apt description. Maybe it's best to stick with the wordless approach anyway. It certainly worked on "Rome."
The vinyl version is where it's at if for no other reason than it comes with a download coupon for a digital copy. So, buy the vinyl, get the artwork, get the superior sonics, and get the portable copy too. Seems like a winning formula to me. To clarify, the artwork isn't on par with "Sgt. Pepper's" or anything. It's pretty sparse, not unlike the soundscapes contained within the grooves, but there's an allure there too. I suspected I'd missed something big in April, and I was right. If I'd known then, the wait would have felt interminable. It seems like there was a lag between the digital release and the vinyl version anyway which was bad enough. I hope that doesn't become a trend, but I noticed it with the Beasties' last one and Steve Earle's new one too. The wait for "Rome," and the Beasties' too, was well worth it. We'll find out about Steve's next month. If you're looking for a chill instrumental record to take you away from the world's madness for about 35 minutes, then go get a copy of "Rome." And give my regards to Norah. She misses me whether she knows it or not.
Dex Romweber Duo "Is That You In The Blue?" Bloodshot Records
Speaking of Large Jack White: Dexter Romweber is one of Jack's more well-documented influences. I didn't realize to what extent until I watched "Athens, GA: Inside Out" recently. I highly recommend that documentary to any fans of local music scenes that haven't seen it. It's good. Anyway, Romweber was in a band called the Flat Duo Jets, they're covered in the doc, and they were popular amongst the hipper kids in my school. I wasn't hip enough at that age (around twelve) to participate, and I wouldn't have gotten it anyway. The recordings are rough and ragged, the performances electric and infused with chemical adrenaline probably natural and synthetic. I'm making assumptions. You'll know why if you watch the movie. It's available for streaming on Netflix. The Jets made a zany sound consisting of surf rock, punk rock, rock rock, rockabilly rock, and, man, they rocked. They were also, as their name suggests, a duo. You guessed it, Dex sang and played guitar while the drummer drummed. A living, breathing precursor to so much to come. "Before their time," and all that business. Luckily, Dexter is still at it. Some things have changed as one would imagine given the amount of time involved (active since at least '83), but the duo format has remained. Or it's back. This time, Romweber's sister handles the drumming. So, now we have a duo consisting of a male singer/guitarist and a female sibling drummer. The picture comes into focus now, huh? The Dex Romweber Duo has a new one out called "Is That You In The Blue?" and I can't recommend it enough. Let's dig a little deeper...
So, in the documentary, Romweber is a wild-eyed maniac front man with jet black hair teased to the moon and pasty white skin that makes him look nocturnal. Kind of like a rock star Edward Scissorhands. Exactly like Jack White. I'm telling you that White copped significant chunks of Dexter's groove without any hint of a cover up or disguise. Romweber can plainly be seen blazing away on his guitar with his microphone set up facing his drummer who he plays directly to as if the audience isn't there in the documentary. There's plenty of live video showing White doing the same schtick with his faux sister, Meg, through the years. Same dance moves, same energy, same results which are a face melting good time for rock and roll. I caught the Romweber Duo a couple of weeks back. The hair is no longer black, the intensity has subsided. The craftsmanship and songwriting chops remain unquestionably intact. Romweber actually had to beg my pardon so that he could slide past me in the entryway to the venue. He looked like Elmer Fudd would have had he gone in for academia rather than rabbit hunting. I didn't recognize him, but I pieced it together once he'd passed. He played a handful of tunes from "Is That You" and they sound great live, but equally great on vinyl. That's a rarity by my estimation, but it makes sense for this format. I can't imagine the Duo spent too much time worrying about microphone placement and overdubs on this record, and the looseness translates perfectly into a fine garage rock record for the new era. "Jungle Drums" and "Homicide," especially, have the surf rock, psycho-billy effect of the Duo Jets of yore while "Think Of Me," for instance, does not. The latter and a few tracks like it are of a vaguely familiar genre that I can't quite place. They're slower tunes that suggest a lounge crooner, demented older Elvis type or something. I like the tunes well enough, but prefer rave-ups like "I Wish You Would." "Gurdjieff Girl" is a killer instrumental surf guitar number too. Basically, if you like garage rock or Jack White, you should pick this one up. It's the only logical choice as long as you're not too caught up with rock and roll imagery. Or if you harbor a particular distaste for Elmer Fudd.
And, if you're gonna get it, get the vinyl. The record itself is pretty non-descript. It's not 180 grams, the pressing is visibly cloudy, but the sound is all there. It's quieter than some of the fancier, thicker discs I've checked out recently. And the vinyl comes with a download coupon (although the sequence is all jacked up on my digital copy), and the artwork is a painting by Dexter himself. Pretty cool, really. Artists, of course, can do what they want with their talents and Dex chose to go in a little softer direction on his last record. "Is That You" is more in line with what I think of when I consider his music. If you're uninitiated, this is a fine entry point to what he's doing with a nod towards what he's done. Of course, you're not really uninitiated if you're familiar with Jack White. This is his blueprint. Soak it up.
Sir Douglas Quintet "The Mono Singles '68-'72" Sundazed
I first heard Doug Sahm sing as a guest on Uncle Tupelo's version of his "Give Back The Key To My heart" which was a popular song for Athens bands to cover while I was in college. Invariably, they introduced their version as an Uncle Tupelo song when, in fact, Sahm was the author all along. The voice was compelling, the song was awesome, and somehow I declined to dig any deeper. If memory serves, and it often does not, I think I assumed that he was a contemporary of Tupelo's, not an influence or an idol. Flash forward a few years, and one of my more tasteful friends burnt me a copy of Sahm's greatest hits with his band, The Sir Douglas Quintet. This was when burning a CD was new and the transfer didn't quite take. There were skips, pops, omissions, and general sonic mayhem. But the message came through. I knew enough to know I wanted in. I wanted to know what this guy's story was, where he was from, where had he gone, and why was I just finding out about him. By then, he'd passed away and I had to live with the knowledge that I'd never see him perform live and that I probably could have had I just gotten off my seat and sought him out properly like I should have as an Uncle Tupelo fan. Or as a fan of good music in general. It's one of my greatest musical failings. But all's well that ends well, I suppose, and now I'm the owner of Sundazed Records' recent Sir Douglas compilation of "The Mono Singles '68-'72." I am, as they say, back in the proverbial saddle. A finely crafted Sahm comp would have been a favorable occurrence on its own. To have it done in glorious mono is more than I could have hoped for. Almost.
As I've alluded to previously, Sundazed isn't one of by go to sources for high quality reissues. They're hit and miss, at best. They hit with the Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis mono compilations (where's the Carl Perkins installment, folks?), and I'm happy to report that the Sir Douglas set is in the same vein. The mono mixes are as clean as possible given the dirty-by-nature source material, and the song selection is right in line with what I'd have chosen if I were in charge. This one makes a fine addition to my growing (almost grown) Sahm collection. I have originals of "Mendocino" and "Honkey Blues," both of which are well represented on "Mono Singles." And that's a fine thing because, to me, that's where the meat of the Doug Sahm matter can be found. I especially like "Honkey Blues" which was recorded when Sahm and company had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a regional hit, and well regarded in these parts as I understand it. I prefer the jam that ends "Sell A Song" to most anything I've heard from the more renowned "jammers" that this area has produced. That song coupled with "Are Inlaws Really Outlaws" gives the listener a fine understanding of what Sahm could do as a rhythm and blues man, but that's just one aspect of a most creatively diverse musical personality. That was kind of Sahm's thing. He could play in most any style and make it sound like an integrated part of his oeuvre, not a simple experiment or a dalliance. I remember wondering what Sahm looked like when all I had to go on was his voice on the Tupelo record. I can't remember what my initial image of him was, but it certainly wasn't of someone that looked a little like I did at the time. That is to say: short, skinny, and white with obnoxiously long blonde hair. I'd have guessed most anything but that. Augie Meyers' Vox organ contributes mightily to the Doug Sahm sound and, luckily, his work is all over this collection. "She's About A Mover" was released prior to '68 so it's not on here, but some of Sahm's more esoteric compositions with titles like "I Wanna Be Your Mama Again" or "Lawd, I'm Just A Country Boy In This Great Big Freaky City" are. I like both of those well enough, but "At The Crossroads" and "Catch The Man On The Rise" blow my socks off every time. And then there's "I Don't Want To Go Home" which was the first Sahm composition that moved me to pick it out on a guitar. I'd have had more success if I'd been privy to the first version of the tune that's included on this collection. It's mostly him and a twelve-string acoustic whereas the second version here, the one I'm most familiar with, gets the full band treatment. I love it very much, and I suspect you will too if you've not been converted already. He's a musician's musician. If you like honest tunes without the modern day distractions, you like Doug Sahm. I've never played him for anyone that didn't jump onboard. That's my attempt to "Sell A Song." Do what thou wilt.
This is a fine collection of tunes in a pretty well crafted package. I'd love to see what Analogue Productions could do with it or a company of that ilk, but that's not what's happening. As a wise woman once said, "If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs if we had eggs." Sundazed stepped up to the plate, and someone somewhere got a little boost in their wallet when I bought my copy. I'm glad they did. They deserve it. The quality of the vinyl is good, not exemplary. There's a little surface noise in the black parts on first listen that no cleaning of the vinyl or stylus can remedy. It's not overpowering, but it's there. The recordings are appropriately warm, and fantastically flawed in their own juices so the little bit of surface noise doesn't distract from the experience in any major way. If you're not familiar with Sahm, I can't think of a better introduction to his work even if his first major hit is not included. It's readily available elsewhere and you won't miss it once the sound on "Singles" immerses you. I guarantee it. My advice would be to start here and seek out the original albums based on the songs you like best in this collection. Meanwhile, enjoy the essay that's included in the gatefold packaging, and most of all enjoy the two discs of various styles and slants on rock and roll. Because that's really what this is. Rock. And. Roll. Go nuts.
Stevie Wonder "Talking Book" Motown/Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
I wish I lived an an era of musical fertility the likes of what folks experienced in the late '60's or early '70's. I don't. By 1970, the Rolling Stones & the Beatles had completely rearranged their sounds and the collective musical landscape in the bargain. And I guess I've seen it happen a time or two in my life also. Wilco did it a few times as did R.E.M. My Morning Jacket tries on new sounds like they're trying on shoes, often within the same ensemble of songs ("Evil Urges"). Still, there's nothing to point to now that would come close to equalling the diversity of thrills that were around every musical corner in 1969. Given all that, I wonder if folks were ready for what Marvin and Stevie had ready for them in their "Golden Eras." We've covered Marvin's Mobile Fidelity releases of the past couple of years already. Now, MoFi is issuing Stevie's "Talking Book" on their new Silver Label imprint. Michael Fremer advised me that MoFi isn't guaranteeing that the Silver Label records are from the original master tapes, but that they are all from analog sources. (There was a nasty fire a couple of years back that destroyed tons of original masters at Universal Studios which may explain the lack. Bad deal.) Also, the Silver Label discs aren't 180 grams. They cost about $10 less than a standard MoFi record so there are some savings to compensate for the perceived difference in quality. I say "perceived" because I can't tell much of a difference between the two product lines beyond the obvious weight difference. That counts for good news in 2011.
Wonder was already one record in to his "Classic Period" when he released "Talking Book" in 1972. Like Marvin, Stevie would have to wrest creative control from the Motown brass to express himself as he saw fit. In both instances, the results were startling. Stevie, especially, began turning out works with thematic song sequences and new sounds that were either assimilated from funk and rock (like the Isley-esque guitar work on "Maybe Your Baby") or that he outright invented himself (like pretty much anything from his classic era involving synthesizers which is pretty much anything from that time). "Talking Book" included "Superstition" which serves as the record's centerpiece and would have served as the centerpiece to most any album in the world if anyone else had the good fortune or the natural ability to have written it. To this day, no one has made better use of a clavinet. It's as if the instrument were invented for the song. There's been nothing like it before or since, and that's an amazing statement when it comes from a place of honesty and not dramatic effect. A truly once in a lifetime thing. That's the level of talent we're dealing with. "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" is another key element to "Talking Book" and it's never sounded better to my ears than on this release. Wonder's vocal versatility is on full display here and in a remarkably low key venue too. Every breath, every nuance, every calculated break in delivery is brought into sharp relief. Side one is a fun listen. Side two will change your life. There's a reason that "Superstition" is a bona fide classic, but that doesn't mean that the other songs were thrown together around it as an excuse to release a long player. There's not a weak song in the bunch. If you doubt that, I'd challenge you to start "Talking Book" from the end and see if the closer doesn't move you as much as the opener. "I Believe" will make a believer out of you. If it doesn't, a trip to the emergency room may be in order. Have them check your pulse and do what it takes to restore your senses.
I often buy high quality reissues with the intention of tracking down a pristine original later, but not necessarily when it comes to Motown discs. I've had bad luck finding decent sounding originals (even if they appear to be clean) and really good luck with some recent reissues specifically from Speakers Corner. No need to look for another copy of "Talking Book." I dropped the needle for a first listen and the disc was so quiet I turned back around to make sure my power amp was on. I couldn't hear a thing during the lead in. The intimacy of Stevie's voice on the quieter songs will make you squirm while the instrumental separation is pronounced on every track no matter how busy the song may be. These releases are numbered and limited so I'd advise you jump on this one while the jumping's good. The MoFi quality is on full display despite the price difference and the mysterious tape source. I won't hesitate to buy anything in this series moving forward. I can only hope for more Motown titles between Speakers Corner and MoFi. It's the best way I've found to hear that music so far.
Warren Haynes "Man In Motion" Stax
Has anyone stepped forward to claim James Bown's vacated title as "Hardest Working Man In Show Business?" Because, if not, I'd like to nominate Warren Haynes. The guy is a monster talent and, apparently, is really easy to work with as evidenced by the fact that he plays with every band in the world. That's not really true. But over the last few years, maybe a little longer, he's played with the Allman Brothers Band and The Dead as well as his own Gov't Mule project which eventually got so busy that he had to quit the Allmans for a while. Now, he does both, again, as well as fronting the Warren Haynes Band while still going out with the Dead when the Dead go out. And it's not that he just plays in these ensembles. He takes over any band he touches and becomes de facto musical director every time. His guitar tone is made of meat, he's a legitimately masterful player, and he sings like a man possessed. The things he does with a guitar while simultaneously singing will make your head spin. I saw the Mule cover "Who's Next" in its entirety last Halloween in Oakland. I'm not a fan of that album. I was blown away by the performance. I had to reconsider the whole Who thing. Now, Haynes has released "Man In Motion" under his own name with a distinctly different vibe than any of his bands that I've mentioned so far. This is his "R 'n B" album on the Stax label. Hardest working man in show business, indeed.
I've noticed that rockers releasing "R 'n B" albums is all the rage lately, at least amongst bands that I pay attention to. In fairness, there's not much of a pond to fish in with regards to all that. The Drive-By Truckers released one earlier this year, and now Warren comes along with his addition to the gumbo. I'm not hearing it, really. I'm hearing rock and roll in both cases. Maybe Warren's "Your Wildest Dreams" counts for rhythm and blues. It has kind of an "I've Been Loving You Too Long" vibe. "On A Real Lonely Night" flirts with the genre more than it qualifies as an entry. All of this, of course, is neither here nor there. It all goes in the pot, and you call it whatever you want when you're done. Maybe folks just need a way to file records in their appropriate bins at the retail outlets or maybe the media latches on to a snippet of a quote as a way of covering the release in a way that readers can relate to. It sounds like rock and roll to me even with George Porter's contributions on bass and Ron Holloway's sax parts. The problem is that I've never heard a Warren Haynes recording that captures anything close to what the guy can do on stage. A kid on the train heading to the Halloween show described him as the Jimi Hendrix of slide guitar. I'm not sure, and neither were the kid's friends. They went to see Gorillaz instead. Blues based music is boring to them, they said. But the kid was right in that Haynes has put the slide in some wildly unexpected places even if he hasn't exactly reinvented it. To me, he sounds like Warren Haynes and deserves to be known as such. To call him by another guitarist's name negates what he's done in his career as far as I'm concerned. I'm splitting hairs and gotten way off topic. The gutless recording streak continues for Ol' Warren as this record's songs will undoubtedly carry much more weight at the Warfield in October (where it looks like he'll be playing a bunch of Sly Stone songs). The problem, as always, is that these recordings are too clean. They are in no way offensive, just a little middle of the road for my taste. I can't figure it out. Why doesn't he do it like the folks at Fat Possum did when they were recording R.L. Burnside? I know Haynes is aware of their work because I saw him play with R.L. in Asheville once. Maybe he's doing exactly what he wants to do & getting precisely the sounds he intends in the studio. I can't imagine that's true, but it's equally hard to see him compromising on his sound. I'm gonna keep hoping for a sturdy studio offering from him. I might as well. I don't see him going away any time soon unless something crazy happens.
If you're gonna pick this one up, after such a ringing endorsement, I'd say get the vinyl package. It comes with a download coupon of the entire work, and the two heavy discs are pretty clean. Not MoFi clean, but MoFi set the standard. If all records were like MoFi records we wouildn' t know how special MoFi records are. Still, the world would be a better place. These records came in standard paper sleeves (i.e. crappy inner sleeves) and were scuffed when I unwrapped them. I've since housed the discs in ("archival quality") MoFi inner sleeves and they seem much happier. That means I'm keeping the record so don't let my negativity impact your judgement. It didn't even impact mine. I like the songs, the recordings are passable, and I'll get some usage out of "Man In Motion" from time to time. That'll have to be good enough until Warren finds his live sound in the studio or until I get old enough to not care. That day's a long way off so I'm hoping for the former. Unless something crazy happens.