- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 07 June 2011
Charles Bradley "No Time For Dreaming" Dunham Records
I decided a while back to ride the Dap-Kings train until it took a wrong turn or flew off the tracks entirely. Put simply, they make the best rhythm and blues records around in 2011. Perhaps the only rhythm and blues records in 2011 if you're a staunch traditionalist. At least on a major scale. So when I noticed they had a new name on their roster, I snapped up a copy of "No Time For Dreaming" by Charles Bradley. While the train neither veered off course nor ran off the rails, it seems to have slowed down a bit. The ride is still pleasant and the sonics spectacular, but it doesn't quite take me through the breathtaking landscapes of Dap-Kings collaborations past. Still, it beats the pants off of Chris Brown or whatever name you'd like to substitute for Chris Brown's. His music is interchangeable with his peers' work. Charles Bradley's is at least trustworthy if not life changing. I'll take it during down times like these. What else is there?
The thing is: Charles Bradley's contributions as a vocalist are, actually, close to interchangeable if you could find another elder working vocalist with an interest in roots music. His voice is appropriately gruff and gritty, his lyrics traditionally simple while the Menahan Street Band keeps things as tight and funky you'd expect from this outfit. A quick online search shows them as a compilation of members from the Budos Band, the Dap-Kings themselves, Antibalas, and others. These folks all stand under the same mammoth umbrella of soulfulness. The sounds are pure, and the feeling authentic. I don't think of these folks as making tribute music to a defunct genre so much as I think of them as tasteful musicians who know where the real stuff is... or was. The fact that they seem to have better taste than their contemporaries is to be applauded rather than dismissed in my book. It has been said that "one must be of one's time," but what if one's time is wrong? (That's not an original thought, but I can't figure out who to credit. Suffice it to say, I'm in total agreement.) The rap is that Charles Bradley had hung up his rhythm and blues shoes for a chef's life which lasted a couple of decades before the calling to sing found him again. He moved home to Brooklyn and began working as a vocalist until he was discovered and welcomed into the Dap-Kings family. That's about like tinkering with computers in your garage as a hobby and getting hired to replace Steve Jobs at Apple. Bradley's on the winning team now, and he provides a serviceable voice to already stellar instrumental tracks. He ain't James Brown or Otis Redding. But he's more than adequate, and you're not going to find this type of music with this much feeling anywhere else so my advice would be to hop aboard. If you like tunes with plenty of "ooooh, babies!!" or "I need your love, babies!!" or "please don't take your love from me, babies!!," then you're at the right station. Lots of organ, chunky guitar chords with clean tones, and gloriously rough production without fear of sounds bleeding from one mic to the next. Sounds like rhythm and blues to me. If you don't like that, then stay away by all means. Chris Brown needs you.
The vinyl package of "No Time For Dreaming" is the only way to go if you're gonna go for it at all. It comes with a download coupon so you're covered digitally if you want to take this one with you. But I really don't think you can hear this music correctly if you're not hearing it on wax. You wouldn't go to a race track to hear Itzhak Perlman, right? The record itself is classic too in that it's not particularly heavy or pristine in appearance. But it's as serviceable as the grooves it contains which is all it takes for me. You get some liners with the lyrics reprinted although they don't make for a particularly interesting read. They're not embarrassing, but the sound is what we're here for and the sound doesn't disappoint. Pick one up and see for yourself. If it's not for you, give it to your parents. They'll remember the sound right away. The sound that's made the right way. Let's do our part to make it commercially viable, that's my advice. Then, we'll have a suitable soundtrack to see us through our next project: bringing back real Country...
Various Artists "Heartworn Highways: Original Vintage Recordings From the Legendary Documentary" Hacktone Records
Speaking of country music: A buddy of mine allowed me to glom on to his vacation a couple of years back and drove my sorry ass up the Coastal Highway from San Diego to San Francisco. It was an unbelievable ride, but the opportunity to reacquaint myself with one of my closest high school buddies was the actual highlight. Lots of memories. And tequila. Which erased some of the newer memories we'd just created. But you can't miss what you never had so I still feel like I came out on top. Anyway, this same friend thoughtfully dropped a record in the mail to me as a congratulatory gesture last month. It's called "Heartworn Highways" and is the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name. The movie was made in the '70's and it covers the development of the "Outlaw Country" movement in Tennessee and Texas focusing mostly on Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and features Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle amongst others. I'd never heard of it which is insane. It's the equivalent of being gay and unfamiliar with Lady Gaga. It never should have happened. Better late than never, I guess. Never more so than now...
I kinda cringe at the term "Outlaw Country," much in the same way that I cringe when someone tells me they're a country music fan and then reference what should now be delineated as "Hot New Country" which, obviously, isn't country music at all. But, like a lot of movements, there was real gold in the original hills of the outlaw movement. Then, like hip-hop later, it was co-opted into mainstream culture and lost its edge. But, unlike hip-hop, it was never that dangerous to start with. Really, "Outlaw Country" sounds to me like a bunch of superior songwriters that were unwilling to work within the confines of what country music was evolving into. The purveyors were influenced more by what their grandparents had listened to than by what they were hearing growing up. I can't imagine what they think about what's happening now, but I bet it would make for a funny read. Legend has it that Willie himself wanted to participate in the "Heartworn" documentary, but the director thought Willie had already achieved too much notoriety and wanted to chronicle the developing artists including David Allan Coe who was Willie's opening act at the time. (For the record, I've always avoided Coe's music based on the fact that he's a card carrying racist freak with the vulgar recordings to prove it. In fairness, I've never heard the tapes. But that didn't stop me from harassing his ass off outside the Georgia Theater in Athens once. Memories, indeed.) I've gotten way off track here, but I can bring it back around with the quickness. These recordings were made in small clubs, in the artists' kitchens, fly by night studio sessions, etc. Basically, they are very intimate and organic. That was the idea of the movement, I guess, and the soundtrack makes that clear as a bell. Which can also be said about the recordings themselves. They are phenomenally informal and welcoming. You can hear folks talking, shifting in their chairs, laughing, closing and opening doors, opening bottles and emptying them and opening more. The highlight for me is Rodney Crowell's "Bluebird Wine" which is from one of the kitchen table sessions. Unreal how real it sounds. (It set me off on a Crowell jag that involved reading his recently published memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. Read it.) Of course, Townes ranks up there too with "Waitin' Round To Die," bringing his neighbor to tears in the movie, and "Pancho and Lefty" which actually isn't in the film. I'm glad it's on the record which I enjoyed more than the movie anyway. The movie drags in places. The record drags you into another universe. One where people still write songs, sing them unaided by auto tuners, and play them on instruments that don't even have electricity coursing through them. Sounds like something out of the Flintstones at this point, but it really wasn't that long ago. I can still remember when it happened every day along with conversations and home cooked meals. Or was I dreaming? No! I know I wasn't because it's all in the documentary. Whew! I was unconvinced for a second.
If you like raw, honest, immediate performances by real live musicians - buy the vinyl version of "Heartworn Highways" now. The most recent date on the packaging is 2009, but I checked around online and the set is still readily available. It includes two heavy discs that are visually and sonically perfect. As perfect as anything I've seen in a while. The liner notes are copious and informative both about the content and the process of bringing them to life on vinyl. They claim that no compression was used in order to preserve dynamic range which means you gotta turn it up a little compared to more recent recordings. It blows the doors off more recent recordings. Gatefold packaging, high quality inner sleeves, the works. Easily one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever received in my life. No digital copy of any kind which works perfectly in this setting. Nothing about the movie or it's soundtrack suggests "digital" in any way. Get it, get it, get it. Done.
The International Submarine Band "The International Submarine Band" Sundazed Music
A buddy of mine turned me on to Gram Parsons around the time I started college, and I lorded over that discovery like some sort of medieval knight guarding a castle. I was convinced that my small circle of miscreant friends were the only youngsters in the land that were privy to Pasons' genius. I still kinda am. But as time went on, the word got out. I think that's primarily as a result of Keith Richards' constant gushing in the press about the influence Parsons' had on Richards'' songwriting. This is well documented now and occurred primarily around the "Exile On Main Street" era. Parsons is now credited as the progenitor of the "Country Rock" movement, but the music was still country - the lifestyle was rocking. Parsons lovingly respected the forefathers that developed what was essentially deep blues music for white folks. He's scratching at the inside of his coffin right now trying to fix the evil that he so unwittingly unleashed on the world. As far as I'm concerned it went like this: Parsons influenced the Eagles who really tried to marry country and rock and summarily ruined both. Think about it: no Eagles equals no Garth Brooks. No Garth Brooks equals no Toby Keith. No Toby Keith equals world peace and affluence for all. If Garth Brooks and Toby Keith play country music, then I'm a Mongolian space man. "Sain baitsgaanuu, earthlings!" Anyway, Parsons was once in The International Submarine Band. They released one full length record and one single that I'm aware of, and Sundazed Records reissued both for Record Store Day back in April. And, get this, the album was mastered from the original mono mix! My ship's come in. I'm heading back to outer space via my Mongolian launch pad. "Bayartai zaluusaa!"
I'll start this review by acknowledging that Sundazed Records resides outside my circle of dependability for vinyl reissuing outfits. (Actually, they reside in Coxsackie, New York which I'm still immature enough to think is hilarious.) I compared their Donovan reissue to an original once and thought that it lacked luster. But, in this instance, Sundazed is holding all the cards as I can't imagine how much an original mono copy of "International Submarine Band" in near mint condition would cost. More than I'm worth, I suspect so I climbed in bed with Sundazed. And it's actually pretty comfortable here. Maybe I'm blinded by the value of the content, but it sounds like gold to me. The pressing sounds perfect even if it looks a little cloudy in places. Deep blacks and a complete absence of any ticks whatsoever make this an immediately impressive listen from start to finish. I wish it went on for hours. I'd play it on a loop, but then it wouldn't be a record. I suspect there's been some digitization involved in some part of the process as I simply don't get the level of warmth that I do from, say, the recent White Stripes reissues that did not involve numbers at any point. But, man, it's a fun listen. All ten tunes pop like fireworks, and the songs are sublime. I'm particularly partial to the Sub's version of "Miller's Cave" which starts side two. You can hear Parsons scratching at the surface of his songwriting genius (instead of his coffin) on his four originals, especially "Luxury Liner." And the medley of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "That's All Right" is beyond classic. His voice is ludicrously moving, constantly on the verge of breaking and not as strong as he may have liked. The resultant vulnerability is where the magic is. I mean, don't we usually connect with people most strongly by sharing our vulnerabilities? When was the last time you felt really close to a new acquaintance who was prattling on about how great they were? Right.
Here's the rub: the record was released as a limited run of 1,000 copies over a month ago so you're gonna have to pay for one if you're gonna have one. But that was the case at close of business on April 16, 2011 anyway. Still, I'd have done my part to promote the disc earlier except that my first copy had a blob of some gelatinous substance on it when I opened it. Right in the middle of "Folsom Prison." I cleaned it as best I could, but it still made noise so I emailed the folks in Coxsackie and, to their credit, they made it right. I offered to send the whole package back, but they told me just to send the album and to keep the 7" and the cover. They returned a clean coverless copy to me in a timely fashion which is all you can ask in a situation such as this. I'd never been in a situation such as this. I didn't realize at the time that the 7" was slightly warped. Luckily, it's not as compelling as the album anyway. "Truck Driving Man" is cool and had to have been the "A" side originally, but it's got the copyright info on that side of the sleeve while "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" does not. The latter song is straight novelty and would not be in the least bit compelling were it not from 1966 with Parsons' name attached to it. His performance is unrecognizable as the only lyrics are spoken briefly and are entirely contained within the song's title. Regardless, I feel strongly enough about this mono reissue to recommend that you search for one online and pay for it. I got number 333, and will lord over it like a knight guarding a medieval castle. "Amjilt husie, earthlings!"
Booker T. Jones "The Road From Memphis" Anti-
Where would popular American music be today without the historic contributions from Memphis? Somewhere less funky, I suspect. I mean, that field is fertile. As recently as last month I was going on and on about Big Star. The list of blues men, and probably women, from Memphis is too long to include. The early 2000's found me up all night driving my friends nuts while drunkenly repeating myself about the merits of Big Ass Truck and their live shows. (They're not together any more, and a little part of me is undone by the very thought. Don't bother seeking out their studio stuff. It was a live moment that set me off. And off.) For the most part, we all know that the Memphis meat of the matter fell off the rhythm and blues bone way back in the '60's and '70's. And Booker T. Jones was cooking on the front burner, spicing up more records than we're probably aware of in addition to his work with the MG's. Lord, the man could make an organ talk. And he's still talking. His effort with the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young (!) a couple of years ago was an eye-opener in that it was a straight up instrumental rock record. On his latest, "The Road From Memphis," we find him right where we'd expect. Smoking on a mostly instrumental soul record. Let us rejoice. And shout. And maybe wave our collective hands in the air like we just don't have any concerns.
I first caught Jones live in around 2006 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland warming up the stage for Al Green. Green understands what some of his peers have been slow to embrace. That is this: Soul greats don't have to reinvent themselves to appeal to a modern audience. That's why they're greats. But Jones understands something altogether different which is this: if you're going to reinvent yourself, do it with some soul, please. Don't come at us with new amps and shiny shoes. Keep your funky essence, and, by whatever means you choose, let it flow from you like you did back when. That's why we love you. And make no mistake about it... I love "The Road From Memphis." I've found my first summer groove. This one's a road-tripper, it's a barbeque-er, and a tail gater. All in one. Jones hired some of today's heavies for help in the Roots' rhythm section, as well as some old-time movers in Motown's own Dennis Coffey who seems to be everywhere all of a sudden. Those are some of the players. Vocalists include Sharon Jones, Yim Yames, and... Lou damn Reed? Alright. Whatever. I'm not disputing Reed's coolness. "Loaded" is one of my all time favorites, but the man's no vocalist and his song about New York seems out of place as this Memphis record's closer. Maybe Jones hired Reed to deflect attention from his own vocal turn on "Down In Memphis," but he didn't have to. His vocals are capable of supporting the song if not of catapulting it to another echelon. That's what his organ is for. And it's all over this record. Blessedly so. The production sounds more or less vintage although not to the extent that the Dap-Kings do. There's plenty of separation in the mix with that organ mostly out in front. It is the vocalist, even on the few songs with vocalists. And that's saying a lot when Yim Yames gets involved. That guy can sing, and "Progress" is a good-enough intro if you're uninitiated. But, really, I love the instrumentals on "Road." You get some New Orleans Meters-type flavoring, and even some Jackie Mittoo Studio One grooves as well. Put it in the gumbo and you get Memphis somehow. It's alchemy. It's outstanding. Bring on Summer.
And the vinyl package has its merits too. The record itself isn't going to win any awards based on appearance. It's light and flimsy, like records used to be before 180-gram came along to fool everyone into thinking that a heavier record counts for quality. (It helps, but it can't be the main event. As we say back home, "putting icing on a pile of dung doesn't make it a cake." That's the PG version, anyway.) The liners include a killer essay by Robert Gordon which is most impressive. He knows a thing or two about Memphis. And Muddy Waters. If you like music writing, read everything by Gordon you can find. There's plenty of it. The sonic quality of the record is top shelf if you clean your records and stylus like an adult vinyl enthusiast. If you don't, shame on you, but buy the record anyway. It comes with a CD. Regardless of the format you choose, I think you're missing out if "The Road From Memphis" is not a part of your collection. Especially if you're already a Booker T. fan. Let it be your substitute for a Memphis road trip if you can't find time to make that happen. And don't forget to get some ribs from the Rendezvous if you do make it happen. No shiny shoes allowed.
Radiohead "The King Of Limbs" TBD Records
Alright, here we go again. Radiohead Genius Appreciation: Take 2. I know there's something in there, and this time I'm gonna dig it out and carry it back for the promised reward. Who, exactly, made this promise and to what end? Millions upon millions of fanatical Europeans I have to assume. I mean, I'm reading that this is the most popular band in the world which is interesting to me because I know exactly none of their fans. I'm sure I have friends that are appreciative of Radiohead's music, but I don't know any true believers. I want to believe. I always want to believe - believe it or not. If anyone's paying attention, it may seem that I deliberately cut against the grain of whatever is most popular. I swear I don't think I do. I have different tastes and I'm preternaturally suspicious. I have to be when everyone seems so eager to embrace exactly whatever everyone else is on to. Music is too personal of an experience for me to abide by that practice, and that same practice has too often led to blind following of Followills and Dave Mathews. Think of popular vernacular and you'll know what I'm talking about. We have to say what everyone else says, right?
Try this: keep a one-day log of how many times you hear or read about what someone or something is "about." Or, very commonly, "all about" or "not about." You'll lose count after a couple of hours. It's a pandemic that makes "don't go there" look like a flash in the pan and I still hear it everywhere. I assumed Radiohead was going to be similarly flashy in that same pan. I was wrong. They performed the first sanctioned night-time concert in Golden Gate Park's musically rich history a couple of years back and, by all accounts, you couldn't move left, right, up or down. The park was sold out. And it's roomy, folks. The largest of its kind, in fact. Now, we have "The King Of Limbs" to study. Seems like they sprung one on us as I didn't hear a bit of press leading up to it. Of course, I wasn't looking for it either. But I bet you know someone who was...
I gave some thoughts at this very site (February, 2009) on their second album, "The Bends," which was reissued on vinyl a while back. Even I know that Radiohead has morphed into some kind of monster since their first studio trips, but I wasn't quite prepared for... this. And let's get something out of the way right now lest I confuse anyone more so than I've already confused myself: I like "King Of Limbs." Not like I like "Music From Big Pink" or anything, but it's a cool listen. But what are we listening to? I don't have any overarching need to define or categorize what I'm hearing as far as genres go. I'm not asking if this is a "techno" record or a "drum and bass" record or any of the other genres that I've yet to explore. I don't care about all that. But what are we listening to? Is this a sketch? Is it something that the band through together in a couple of days just prior to releasing it? I'm confused because there aren't really any songs on this record in the traditional since of the word. And that's fine with me too. Really, it is. I appreciate a little pushing of the time-honored envelope. I don't require verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-fade... rinse and repeat. But it seems like the gang stumbled upon a sound, or more to the point a mood, and just rode it out for about 45 minutes. Did they really sit down together and compose these tunes? With what instruments? I bought a guitar in the early '90's that I could sell right now for much more than I paid for it because Radiohead's guitarist plays one now. Or he plays one somewhere. It ain't on "King Of Limbs," I can tell you that much right now. You could sit cross-legged on a cushion with a clear mind presently focused and listen to "Limbs" intently for an organic guitar sound somewhere and I'll bet the farm that you can't find it. I exaggerate, but mostly you get crazy programmed drum beat sounds and crazier still sounds that I have to guess were made by a synthesizer. I know that front man Thom Yorke is a performing DJ now. Who isn't, right? You can't scratch your ass in a public San Francisco space without brushing up against one of those. Seems like he carried that hobby right on over into his world-dominating band. It yields some pretty sounds on "Limbs," mostly towards the end on "Codex" and "Give Up The Ghost" which are both noticeably lacking the stuttering, spastic programmed drum effect. But not lacking in effects. No songs here are lacking effects whether it's a phalange or a simple echo or any number of cool things that I don't even know about. "How do I work this? Where is that large automobile? This is not my beautiful house..."
The vinyl package of "The King Of Limbs" is cool enough to recommend if you're gonna pick up the album in one format or another. It comes with a digital download coupon and it isn't pricey so go for it. The liner notes are not any more revealing than the music is, but it has some cool artwork that looks like Edward Gorey played a hand in creating. (I don't think he did.) The disc itself is neither heavy nor beautiful, and there's a little noise here and there even after cleaning. This adds to the "afterthought effect," but - again - it costs less than I think CD's cost now. Who knows about that? CD's are as mysterious to me as the secret society of Radiohead fans that's bigger than Canada. I'd be interested in checking out a Blu-Ray version if such a thing exists. I think the music would lend itself nicely to that level of clarity. Ultimately, I'll get some play out of "Limbs." I'm keeping it after parting with "The Bends" long ago. "The Bends" was verse, chorus, verse, chorus anyway. Who has time for that when you're secretly running the world from a foxhole in Europe?