- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 14 September 2010
Little Feat "Dixie Chicken" Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Little Feat is a band that has worn many hats in its lifetime. Unfortunately, based on what I saw in Golden Gate Park last October, their current hat is ill-fitted, torn, and frayed. But they were a rock and roll juggernaut in their heyday, back when their founder and creative force was still alive. His name was Lowell George, and he gets nowhere near the historical credibility that his legacy deserves. I don't have an explanation for that. Little Feat rose to prominence, albeit on a much smaller scale than they should have, in the 1970's. Clearly, they pre-dated the time when good looks were a requirement for commercial success. We only have MTV to thank for that, and MTV wasn't even a blip on the radar when Little Feat released their third long player, "Dixie Chicken." Up until then, the band had basically reinvented itself with every new release, and "DC" found them in an obvious mood for New Orleans soul cooking. Lowell George was from Texas while his playing was interplanetary. But New Orleans informs every song on "Dixie Chicken," and the remainder of his output to greater or lesser degrees until his untimely demise in 1979. It's almost impossible to imagine now, when every major release seems plagued by advanced online leakage ("AOL?"), how surprised this band's following must have been when their first record was barely a glorious notch above garage rock, their second was straight '70's sheen, and their third came up from the swamp bottom. I'm envious of that experience. But I guess I've had my good times too. They're rarely any better than "Dixie Chicken," especially when the folks at MoFi are turning the knobs and rolling the tape. Look out, world!
The songs on "Dixie Chicken" are nothing short of anthemic to the enlightened. (If Little Feat fans have a catchy brand name like "Deadheads," I'm unaware of it. But they should. They're quite loyal.) The Mobile Fidelity release is the first version that I've owned, and I went in knowingly familiar with the title track and just a couple of others. It turns out that I can sing along with almost every one of the ten tunes included. And I'm tempted to do so. Especially "Dixie Chicken," and "Two Trains" which starts the party in the most severe fashion. I'm hearing swamp funk from the first jump until George blindsides you with the simple beauty of "Roll Um Easy." That title conjures all sorts of crazy images based on one's knowledge of George's hard living, but it is, in fact, a moving little love song as quiet as, if less well-known than, his celebrated original, "Willin'." From there, you get the first official acknowledgement of the Crescent City's vast heritage with a cover of Allen Toussaint's "On Your Way Down." George would collaborate with the Meters following the release of "Dixie Chicken," and contributed to Robert Palmer's New Orleans-inflected '70's releases too, so it's safe to say that the city's grip on him never lessened after this most obvious jumping off point. Side Two is no less powerful than the first with future band member Fred Tackett's "Fool Yourself" as a highlight as well as George's "Fat Man In A Bathtub." Bill Payne and Richard Heyward furnish a more than serviceable "Walkin All Night" making "Dixie Chicken" a true group effort, though no one would question the band's hierarchical songwriting arrangement. Lowell George was the indisputable genius in this ensemble, and that is evidenced by the current lineup's refusal to acknowledge what seemed so clear to me in a live setting last year. This band had its time. And it is long since over. Replacing Lowell George in Little Feat has been as futile as imagining the Rolling Stones without the services of Jagger/Richards. It's not the same band. Call it something else.
Anyone familiar with the quality of a Mobile Fidelity release knows exactly what to expect when they remove their perforated, oversized outer plastic sleeve for the first time. I've been a vocal Classic Records supporter for as long as I've been aware of their existence. I still am as that company dies a tragic, slow death. Maybe I'm mentally preparing for a world without their offerings, but Mobile Fidelity has supplanted Classic as my go to resource for high-quality vinyl. I buy Classic Records because mint original versions of their Blue Note titles would cost more than San Francisco real estate. I buy Mobile Fidelity because, in my experience, they sound better than the originals. I'm sure there are folks that would debate that with me until the end of time, and that's fine with me. MoFi's level of quality does not fluctuate, and I've been the opposite of disappointed with every purchase. I just wish there were more of them. They can be tricky to find, and they cost what they're worth. Luckily, we have the internet, and ordering MoFi vinyl is one of my favorite uses for it. They've already released Little Feat's first three studio records and the two-disc classic live "Waiting For Columbus" is coming up soon. I'll have them all, and you should too. I promise.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions "Armed Forces" Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
As fate would have it, I purchased Elvis Costello's third release, "Armed Forces," after skipping his second record while owning the first. Which exactly matches the pattern of my recent Little Feat purchases. While Costello's style doesn't vary as wildly as Little Feat's from his first to his third, there is a pronounced difference of character amongst his earliest releases. Costello's progression is more linear, from simpler songs with sparse instrumentation to a bigger sound with a full-time backing band - the Attractions in this instance. Costello's early collection is getting the MoFi treatment now too so it's a good time to be a vinyl fan and a lover of rock and roll. As disparate as Little Feat and Costello's offerings are, they are both, undoubtedly, pure rock and roll in the truest sense. The title and cover art alone would have been reasons enough to pick up "Armed Forces" with it's frame-worthy mural of menacing elephants. The fact that the record rocks and pops makes it the unqualified classic that history has shown it to be. Costello relies mostly on his songwriting chops on "Armed Forces" as it would be about thirty years between its release and the live performance that left my mouth agape at the realization of his formidable vocal talents. Basically, if you are a fan of his voice, then you'll love "Armed Forces." It's comprised of six tight little numbers per side, and ends too quickly for my taste. I'm always tempted to take it for another spin, but I usually just end up playing my MoFi version of his first disc instead. Makes me feel less fanatical, I guess...
Apparently, Costello slipped into the stream of public consciousness on the heels of two wildly divergent musical movements, one being Punk, the other New Wave. History will probably show in some ways that the two styles share more commonalities than we initially thought. I wasn't aware of much beyond my favorite cartoons at that age, certainly not the intricacies of pop music. And I've never gone back to study either movement thoroughly, least of all New Wave. But I hear it in "Senior Service," or at least what I conceive New Wave to be, and I can't imagine ever liking any artist's contributions more than I do Costello's. Bad moods are impossible in the light of this music even when Costello's singing about how he'd "rather be anywhere else but here today." The keys are too merry, the drums too peppy for discontent to thrive in these grooves. Costello seems to rely heavily in this era on the staccato beat eventually giving over to the more flowing, catchy chorus. Tension and release at its most effective, I say. The songs on his debut may have been catchier as a general rule. I retained them after the first listen whereas "Armed Forces" has more of a cumulative effect that creates an impression based on the whole more so than the individual songs. That's not to suggest that "Accidents Will Happen" or "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" can't stand up on their own. They can. But I prefer hearing them along with their "Armed" brethren. They're stronger as a family unit. The Beatles seem to have influenced the ending to "Party Girl" which is one of the few obvious nods to pop music history that I can discern in these songs. Mostly, "Armed Forces" sounds like nothing that I'm aware of before or since unless you want to compare Costello's work to itself. There's a lot of it, and he's not slowing down. In fact, he's back at this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October with his current band, The Sugarcanes. I assume that his set will be comprised mostly of country music, but I shouldn't assume any such thing. It could be super heavy soul funk for all I know, and I bet it will be great if it is.
Again, the quality of what's included with this Mobile Fidelity release is unimpeachable. If I were going to quibble with any aspect of this version, it would be that they declined to include a three-song live set that came on a separate record with the original release. Of course, I would have no way of knowing what I was missing were it not for Wikipedia. One of the many pitfalls of modern technology, I suppose. I'd love to hear the versions of "Accidents Will Happen" and "Watching the Detectives" that I'm missing. That's what another of my modern technological pitfalls is for. I'm talking, of course, about Ebay. Until I can supplement this version with that single, I'll be blissfully losing myself in the melodies and rhythms of "Armed Forces." Then, I'll go back for the recent MoFi release of Costello's second long player, "This Year's Model." That one is actually his first with the Attractions although they weren't credited on the cover. I'd never have guessed as a kid that I'd end up plunking down the amount of dough that I have on Elvis Costello records as an adult. He's one of my least likely heroes. And "Armed Forces" is one of my least likely favorites. Try it out for yourself. Tell me if I'm nuts.
Carolina Chocolate Drops "Genuine Negro Jig" Nonesuch
I'm sure there's a term for the phenomena that occurs when you first learn about a band (or a word or a syndrome), and then you encounter it everywhere you go for however long it takes to for it to work itself out of your system. The only thing I've come up with online so far is "perceptual vigilance." I don't think that quite covers it. Synchronicity would be closer than perceptual vigilance. No matter. One of my lifelong best friends called me from home recently ranting and raving about the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Three days later (I swear), I'm hearing about them from friends in San Francisco. Next, they're on some late night talk show that I'm seeing for the first time in my life, and finally they're scheduled to perform at this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October. And, please don't doubt me on this one, they will go over like Hendrix at Monterey. I can't think of a more apt band to satisfy the NPR crowd and the hippies alike. These folks have a niche built in to their very existence that will carry them around the world. At least for the next couple of years. Their newest is called "Genuine Negro Jig." The three members do not appear to be of Caucasian descent, and their sound will doubtlessly inspire many a dance, but I'm going tor require some convincing regarding the "genuine" bit. We'll see...
"Genuine Negro Jig" is made up predominantly of old time traditionals with the odd Billboard hit or Tom Waits composition thrown in for effect. Anyone who remembers the Blue Rags will know that this approach, while novel, is not new. But it's new to most, and the congregation will pass this record (more likely CD) around to each other with wild-eyed enthusiasm until their ardor begins to wilt, and then I suspect they'll be on to the next band with a more lively gimmick. (Perhaps their newest heroes will use a vacuum cleaner as an instrument. Wouldn't that be nuts?! No wait. That's been done already. While jumping on trampolines, no less. Lord, help us.) If it sounds like I'm jaded, it's because... I'm jaded. But not for the most obvious reasons. No one likes traditional American music more than I. And few people my age care less for current popular offerings. So, what's my problem with the Carolina Chocolate Drops? Honestly, I'm not sure. I actually like the record. I think it's fine. But I listen to Bob Marley when I'm in the mood for reggae, and I listen to Bill Monroe at bluegrass time as a general rule. Similarly, I have a wealth of field recordings to choose from if I want to hear traditionals. And listening to the Chocolate Drops do "Hit 'Em Up Style," a 2001 mega-hit about a vengeful girlfriend having just taken her man to the cleaners over his infidelity, just seems like a classically trained progeny's grab for attention by playing "Sweet Child O' Mine" on cello. It feels contrived. Especially when you learn that "Hit 'Em Up Style" was written by Dallas Austin. Who is a man. The Waits tune seems a little less labored as much of his music lends itself to the traveling minstrel vibe anyway. And there's nothing in the least bit offensive about the rest of the album if you just take it for what it is and you don't bring your own baggage to the party. I can't help that. It's what I do, I guess. I dig beneath the surface of art to learn of its origins. This often leads me to a study of the actual artist, and this in turn can lead me to a dispiriting conclusion. We research our idols until we uncover the nasty bits that reside in all of us, and then we blame them for being less than our idealized perception of them. Fortunately, my findings on "Genuine Negro Jig" are not so dramatic. I found out that a tune about a woman's revenge was written by a man. I'm not quite ready to throw myself off the bridge about it yet.
"Genuine" is a brief affair brought to us by the folks at Nonesuch Records. This is not the otherworldly holistic experience that the label provided us with during Wilco's tenure there, but it's more than passable in today's scaled-back climate. The single record is of a pedestrian weight with brief liner notes describing each song's significance to the band. A CD of the entire offering is included, and the record is housed in a high quality inner sleeve which prevents scuffing. I suppose that too much dazzle would put us at odd's with the band's rootsy aesthetic in some ways. Still, this feels like a thoughtful release and it's one that the band can be proud of. I'm keeping it. "Genuine Negro Jig" is one of the few releases that I own that might make me look at least a little tuned in to what's popular now. I hope they stay away from the vacuums and trampolines long enough to get one more good record under their belt. I don't think that's too much to ask.
The Racontwoers "04-17-2010" Third Man Records
"Don't bet against Big Jack White." That's my motto. The guy's played a hand in a smoking release annually for the last decade. Whether as a front man, side man, producer, or movie star, he's done it all. He's probably done all four in the same year, though I haven't taken the time to verify that. I was fortunate enough to visit his record store in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, and seized upon the opportunity to throw a wad of money directly at his local operation. Third Man Records was a blast, and I didn't even go there knowing that it was a special release day. An employee let me in on the secret when I was confronted upon arrival by a line of people awaiting entry. It was hot. Around 110 degrees with the heat index factored in. And I waited in this heat for the honor of exploring Big Jack's shop of vinyl wonders without complaint or concern. Maybe a little complaining. But I was never concerned. I was confident. I was hoping to find some White Stripes records that have escaped me to this point. I found none. Those are on the way according to one of the clerks who was dressed in the unmistakable black, yellow, and white dress code of the day. I found plenty of prizes to hold me over until the Stripes re-issues are finally made available. I'll focus here on the live Racontwoers 12-inch that I came away with, but that's like talking about Superman without mentioning his ability to fly. There's all kinds of golden finds stashed within the confines of this tiny room. And I didn't even get to tour the recording studio. Or the live performance space.
Speaking of Superman without flying: the Raconteurs recorded this live set at Third Man on Record Store Day '10 without the services of Big Jack. I believe he was on tour as the drummer for the Dead Weather at the time. So Brendan Benson and the gang are cleverly referring to this roster as "The Racontwoers." Big Jack's considerable shoes are mostly filled on this release by some guy on keyboards. It's a testament to the strength of the songs that Big Jack is not missed. Surely the folks at Third Man went above and beyond to let the assembled audience know in advance that Superman would not be flying in for the show. I can't imagine that they would have wanted to deal with disappointment on such a scale had they not. Like most things that White attaches his name to, even when he's not directly involved, this collection is loose and spontaneous. It is by no means a polished live release. The recording quality is more in line with a high-quality bootleg than a live major label release. Audiophiles will not be impressed with the sonic palate. Half of the eight songs on "04-17-2010" are from the Raconteurs debut, and half are from their follow up which I never really explored. The record's a fun document of a one-off free show for an awesome cause in a musical mecca. There's between song banter with an eye towards acknowledging this performance's missing link. I'm a big-time organ supporter so I'm all in with the keyboards in the foreground. It gives the proceedings a Pink Floydish vibe in places. The single vinyl platter is housed in a non-descript black sleeve reminding me of the hip-hop 12-inch releases of my youth. I'm glad to have it, I'll listen to it a lot. But I'm REALLY stoked about the 45's that I got that day...
Many of the 45's released by Third Man Records have a theme. They have black and blue cover art motifs, and they're referred to as the "Blue Series." That's one theme. The other theme is that they're all awesome. I picked up one by the Dex Romweber Duo which I knew I'd like from Romweber's output with the Flat Duo Jets (which pre-dated Big Jack's striped duo by a number of years). I got Rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson's recent release which is also appropriately breathtaking (and spooky). But the real find was the one that folks had lined up for. Third Man pressed 150 tri-colored 45's by the Secret Sisters, and sold 100 of them in store on August 14. There were seven left when I bought mine. The colors of the day, as I mentioned, were black, white, and yellow which may be standard or may have been in honor of the Sisters release as the actual vinyl is comprised of those same colors. I'll find out for sure when I get to go back, I guess. In the meantime, I'll be wearing this one out. The version of "Big River" on side A is one for the books, and features Big Jack prominently on the six string. I may download the single from iTunes to have with me at all times in case I need to beat someone over the head with the sheer force of the Sisters' harmonies. Don't bet against Big Jack White, man. Unless you like losing.
Lucero "1372 Overton Park" Universal Republic Records
Lucero's music isn't for everyone. It's not even for everyone who drinks. It's for everyone who drinks whiskey. Straight. Ben Nichols's voice sounds like he swallowed one of those old fashioned pencil sharpeners that your teachers used to have bolted to the wall (do they still have those, I wonder?), and his cohorts rock with a Crazy Horse-like intensity that's outright endangered by now. They've been plying there trade for a little over a decade, and I think it's starting to pay off. I've not met many folks out West that are into them, but I went to see them play at Slim's in San Francisco a couple of years ago and was told, just as my cab drove away, that the show was completely sold out. I'm clearly not talking to the right folks about Lucero. So, they're a little underground and steadily climbing, let's say. Let's also say that they added two new members, one plays pedal steel and one plays keys, for their latest release. It's called "1372 Overton Park." They're a sextet now, and their sound is all grown up especially on "Overton" where they augment their already expanded lineup with a couple of horn players. These boys are making a big, inspired noise. I'm all in. Now, where's my whiskey?
Whether or not you can hack Nichols's rasp, you'd be a fool to doubt his songwriting ability. It reminds me of a Beavis and Butt-head episode where the two were watching a Tom Waits video. Butt-head's comment was something along the lines of, "This guy can't write a decent song, but he sure can sing." (Not verbatim. Butt-head would never say "decent.") Well, Nichols's voice is just percentage points ahead of Waits's for social acceptability. The titles on "Overton" almost tell the story on their own. We've got one called "Smoke," and a "What Are You Willing To Lose?" "Can't Feel A Thing," and "Sixes and Sevens." Those just make up most of side one. "Hey Darlin' Do You Gamble?" is reserved for the second act. As a generality, Nichols writes high-energy story songs with more spirit than a snake handling service. I'm reminded a bit of Springsteen in essence, not so much in packaging. Anyone who's been in love could relate to the bulk of Lucero's songs. Especially if it went bad. "Chasing whiskey, drinking women," indeed. That's a line from "Sixes and Sevens" which is my current favorite on the record. That'll change a few times before "Overton" is taken out of heavy rotation. That's how I know I like it. Some folks can tap into the youthful feeling of wonder, conjuring images of boardwalks and cotton candy, drag races and drive-ins, and they can do it without dipping too deeply into cliche or melodrama. It's a talent that can't be overstated, and one that Nichols has refined and bent to his will. I wouldn't be surprised if something finally breaks for the band and Nichols goes down in history as exactly what he is: one of the finer rock and roll poets of this time. (What marketing nickname have we assigned to this era? I'm a little out of the loop.) I saw the guy play a solo acoustic set at a record store in town a while back. He had plenty of followers and they were all dressed just like him. Coincidence? I doubt it. I have a successful band litmus test that hasn't failed me yet. If you go to the show, and the girls know all the words (which they did), the band is gonna make it. I don't mean Dave Mathews Band making it. I mean "supporting yourself with your art" making it. And I don't see Ben Nichols working a day job any time soon. If there's any justice in this world, he won't ever again. If he ever did. I can't imagine it.
"1372 Overton Park" is a fine record. It's a safe bet that you'll like Lucero if you like their sometimes tour buddies in the Drive-By Truckers. "Overton" reminds me of an Elvis record that I had as a kid called "Moody Blue," but only because the two records are... blue. Must be a Memphis thing. I wonder if it's Lucero's tribute to the King. I'm probably reading too much into it. Anyway, I'd much rather listen to Lucero's latest than Elvis's last at this point in my life. And Lucero included a download coupon for taking the whole thing with you as they could rightly expect their fans to want to take this one on the road. I'm heading out of town this weekend, and it'll be the first file I zip over to my iPod (iPhone) for the trip. My advice would be to come out of that coma and try something new for a change. Something you haven't heard before that rocks with feeling. If you don't like it, you can go right back to what you've been with all along. Like Elvis, maybe.