Friday, January 30, 2015

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past

As much great new music as there was last year, there was nearly as much reissued and rediscovered material. Some releases were attended with great fanfare, others arrived with not nearly enough notice. In the end, the cream from both categories rose to the top. 


Wilco - Alpha Mike Foxtrot While there is little on these four superb discs that wasn't issued in one way or another prior to this box set, it all adds up to a magnificent alternate history of one of the greatest American bands of all time. In a year that saw all the members of Wilco pursuing their own projects, AMF is a rousing reminder of why we were interested. 

Their beginnings, scrappy and with only minimal promise in the wake of Uncle Tupelo's split (Doug Sahm bet on the other guys), are covered quickly. By the end of the first disc, they're in their full glory with songs like Sunken Treasure and Monday, included here as a live take and a demo respectively. 

The three remaining discs each hold a well-sequenced mix of stage versions of familiar songs along with hidden gems and cover songs Hoovered up from singles, soundtracks and compilations. After a few listens, including a couple of sessions where I let all 77 tracks run, the only question I was left with was whether Wilco is in the top ten of American bands or the top five. Essential. 

Hank Williams - The Garden Spot Programs The "old lovesick wandering cowboy" himself was a busy man during his short life, spending much time on the road and in radio stations in addition to the dozens of studio sessions for Sterling and MGM that make up most of his legacy as one of the bedrocks of Americans music. 

In the wake of the monolithic compilation of his Mother's Best radio shows from 2011 comes this remarkable find: 24 songs (including jingles) recorded for the Garden Spot show that were all thought lost. Williams is in spectacular voice throughout and sounds relaxed and jovial, even on mega-weepies like I've Just Told Mama Goodbye and At The First Fall Of Snow. The sound is crystal clear, the band is swinging, the songs are unimpeachable. Another special item from Omnivore Recordings

Hi Sheriffs Of Blue - NYC 1980 This rough and ready collection is 100% of a time and place yet so full of possibility that it still sounds like the future. Full review to come, but suffice it to say that Byron Coley has performed a public service by getting this material out. 

Love - Black Beauty Speaking of public services, fans of the brilliant Arthur Lee should high five High Moon Records for adding this great collection to the Love catalogue. Although a little uneven, it is a beauty indeed

Mutual Benefit - The Cowboy's Prayer Loves Crushing Diamond was one of the best and most distinctive albums of recent years. Yet there was much music by Jordan Lee that came before it, often released in extremely limited quantities during the course of his travels. Thanks to Other Music Recording Co. this gem is now widely available. Like an eggshell, there is both delicacy and strength to these sounds, a combination that keeps it from being too precious. But if you love it as I do, you'll hold it very dear indeed. 

Bayete Todd Cochran - Worlds Around The Sun Welcome return to the catalog for this jazz funk near-classic. Hopefully Omnivore Recordings will turn their loving attention to Cochran's even tougher follow up, Seeking Other Beauty. 

Various Artists - I'm Just Like You: Sly's Stone Flower 1969-70 In 2013 we got Higher,  which was quite wonderful and very nearly the career overview that Sly & The Family Stone deserved. Now thanks to Light In The Attic's brilliant work we get an incisive look at how the funk genius went from being "Woodstock Sly" on Stand! to being "weirdo Sly" on There's A Riot Going On. 

Pulling together the official releases of Sly's Stone Flower label along with demos and alternate takes, we hear him searching out that murky and divisive sound while also trying to make hits for Little Sister, Joe Hicks, and 6ix. Fascinating stuff. 


The Clientele - Suburban Light Even if the reissue of this magnificent sigh of an album hadn't led to me having not one but TWO chances to see them live, it would still be a signature moment of the year. The extra disc of rare gems only doubles the pleasure - Driving South, for example, is one of their finest songs ever. Watching Alasdair MacLean, Mark Keen and James Hornsey commune with these songs - and with each other - made me think their hiatus may not be indefinite. 

The Led Zeppelin Reissues While I'm slightly underwhelmed by most of the bonus material, Jimmy Page's ability to keep drawing new sonic detail out of these monolithic albums is nothing short of astonishing. The first album comes with a punishing live set, which is a must to own, as for the rest - at least so far - getting the single disc versions may be enough of a feast. 

Michael Chapman - Playing The Guitar The Easy Way Light In The Attic continues their excellent series of Michael Chapman albums with this delight from 1978. Sort of an instructional album for experienced guitarists who have gotten "bogged down," Chapman's intricate playing may do a better job at inducing despair in players. The rest of us can just listen and enjoy the sounds of a master at work. 

New Age Steppers/Creation Rebel - Threat To Creation In which post-punk royalty (The Slits' Ari Up and PIL's Keith Levene, for two) meet Prince Far-I's backing band under the heavy manners of British dub maven Adrian Sherwood. The results, as the title suggests, are explosive. For someone like me, who still remembers laying hands on a copy of New Age Steppers's Massive Hits Vol. 1 in a dusty Boston record store, the fact that this is easily accessible on Spotify and elsewhere is a cause for celebration. All praise to the fine folks at Mexican Summer for unleashing this Threat. 

Wire - Document & Eyewitness 1979-1980 The words "post-punk royalty" above should have caused immediate thoughts of this band. After moving forward like a freight train with a remarkable string of albums over the last few years, Colin Newman and friends took a look back by revisiting this formerly hens-tooth rare collection of sounds made by a band imploding. 

On 154, the album just before these performances, producer Mike Thorne had managed to add a bit of pop sheen to Wire's spiky sound. As brilliant as it was, the record caused a crisis of conscience in the arty quartet, leading to the staged confrontations heard here. But there is a lot of music among the madness, as the band made clear by basing several songs on their recent album, Change Becomes Us, on fragments and ideas that first appeared here. The enjoyment and fascination of both albums is enhanced by tracking the connections between the two. Dive in. 

Gazelle Twin - The Entire City In my little corner of the world, the reappearance of Elizabeth Bernholz's striking debut from 2011 completely overshadowed her second album, Unflesh. I highly recommend catching up with both - strong, artful, and dark. 

Life Without Buildings - Any Other City Perhaps if they had lasted longer than this one album, Glasgow would be as identified with this band as much as it is with Belle & Sebastian. With chiming guitars and charming songs, they sound like they could pal around with The Vaselines and The Smiths. They keep things fairly simple in order to showcase the idiosyncratic vocals of Sue Tompkins, who comes off a little like a happier Poly Styrene. 

Tompkins is now an accomplished artist and perhaps her unique vocal style wasn't really meant to last beyond these few songs. But Any Other City is a one-off that should always be in print, awaiting discovery by successive generations, so thanks to What's Your Rupture for making it widely available again. 


Max Richter - Retrospective The young composer and "re-composer" (of Vivaldi, among others) gets the deluxe treatment from Deutsche Grammophon with this nice cube containing The Blue NotebooksSongs From Before24 Postcards in Full Colour and Infra, along with bonus tracks. From cloudy to crystalline and from ambient to industrial, Richter has covered a lot of ground. 

Placido Domingo - The Verdi Opera Collection Unlike the Richter set, which is priced quite steeply, this collection of six operas over 15 discs may be the bargain of the decade. The rapturous recording of Luisa Miller alone would be worth $40. Naturally, you don't get librettos at that price, but just listen - you'll get the whole story of these magnificent works of musical theater. 


Jonathan Wilson - Spotify Sessions: Live At Bonnaroo I've seen Wilson twice, both times in the cramped confines of the Mercury Lounge and you can actually hear him revel in the big outdoor stage where this recorded. And rightly so: he has a big sound, an ambitious talent, and endless virtuosity in all forms of rock music. He starts this set with a languid take on Angel, the early Fleetwood Mac slow jam, and just ramps it up from there. By the end, he's unleashing fire and has the audience firmly in hand. I wish I was there and I think you'll agree.

John Coltrane - Offering: Live At Temple University The auditorium at Temple University became the Temple of Coltrane one night in 1966. Apparently the Student Union lost money on the gig (they hoped Dionne Warwick's sellout show would make up the difference, apparently), so we owe them a debt of thanks for presenting it and preserving the music for eternity. 

Coltrane's playing ranges from lyrical to anguished, occasionally producing sounds that are still discomfiting today, like some of Hendrix's performances of Machine Gun. Pharaoh Sanders is also incredible, especially on Leo, finding a middle ground between jump blues and the avant garde. The expanded rhythm section of five percussionists led by Rashied Ali provides mainly a bed of constant rhythm, creating a swirl that nears chaos on occasion. Sonny Johnson, when you can hear him, is extraordinary on bass. His solo to introduce My Favorite Things is one for the ages. Alice Coltrane's piano sparkles on nearly every song, as if she were commanding 88 stars instead of keys. And yes, Coltrane sings, or chants, which is fascinating but still very musical and only increases the sense of occasion.

Coltrane only had months to live when he took the stage at Mitten Hall that night. Whether he knew that or not, he plays like a man with much at stake. Even though he included one audience favorite in the set, there is never a sense that he is aiming to please anyone than himself and the dedicated players that surrounded him that night. on Offering, you meet Coltrane on his own terms or you don't meet him at all.

Miles Davis - Miles At The Fillmore 1970 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 3) You could get caught up in the weeds of how this release interacts with earlier releases of those nights at the Fillmore (both East and West) when Miles and his cohort strafed the audience with phantasmagoric sounds. Maybe you have an unofficial bootleg (guilty), or some edited version of some of these sounds. Forget all that and just revel in this beautifully presented release. It was a time that Miles could do no wrong and it's about time it was put into the official canon. 

The Allman Brothers - Play All Night: Live At The Beacon Theater 1992 We mourned a lot of deaths in 2014, but this was the death of a legendary American band. Perhaps their time had come, but what I heard of their last shows displayed plenty of fire. I'm sure some of that material will be released eventually. For now we have this, an excellent set from their early 90's resurgence. They had some good new material, a couple of new members (especially the great Warren Haynes on guitar) - and Dickey Betts was still in the band. My wife and I saw one of these concerts and we were enraptured by the interplay, the soulfulness, and the sheer power they had to go anywhere they wanted. Nice to know it really did sound that good. Now, my hope is that Gregg will go on tour like he did in 1974 - I'll be there.

Bonus Track: Michael Jackson's Love Never Felt So Good, the original take featured on the deluxe edition of odds & sods collection Xcape is pure magic. It has everything that got us interested in the first place.

This concludes my round-up of the great sounds of 2014. In case you missed them, the other posts were:

Best Of 14 (Part 1)
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Old Favorites, New Sounds
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Hip Hop & Jazz
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Synths & Who's New (To Me)

Don't get left behind on the greatness of 2015 - the Of Note playlist is already filling up!

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