Saturday, August 24, 2019

Record Roundup: Past Is Present

The albums described below are all linked by their dialogue between the past and the present. This may come via musical references or inspiration from literature, art, or architecture, all transmuted into something resolutely of our times by the composers and performers alike.

JACK Quartet - Filigree: The Music of Hannah Lash The durability of the string quartet never ceases to amaze me and with artists like Lash and the JACK perpetuating the medium it should be around for centuries to come. The album hits the ground running with Frayed, which brilliantly employs extended techniques to sound like it’s literally coming apart as you listen. Suite: Remembered and Imagined engages with Baroque dance rhythms across its six short movements, using Lash’s inventiveness to remain relentlessly modern. The title of Pulse-Space may make you think of a Pink Floyd outtake, but is instead a threnodic outpouring of pure emotion, with only Lash’s restraint keeping it from neo-romanticism. Inspired by Medieval weaving techniques, Filigree In Textile also features Lash on harp (it was originally performed by her teacher, the great Yolanda Kondonassis, who has a fine recent album of her own) and allows you to add the finishing touches as you assemble the threads in your mind. As expected, the JACK makes all of this sound as natural as breathing and it's hard to imagine a better presentation of this excellent, deeply involving music. 

Wild Up - Christopher Cerrone: The Pieces That Fall to Earth In these three song cycles, Cerrone’s variety of expression is a direct reflection of his laser focus on the words, both their sound and their meaning. It’s easy to hear why he was attracted to the words of Kay Ryan for the title piece as her poems are full of sonic interest. Take Sharks’ Teeth, the fifth of the seven songs in the cycle: “Everything contains some silence,” Ryan wrote, “Noise gets its zest from the small shark’s-tooth shaped fragments of rest angled in it.” Cerrone sets this one with a rhythmic ostinato over which soprano Lindsay Kesselman whispers the words theatrically, letting you turn them over in your mind. The next song, Insult, bursts out of the quiet with rattling bells and tense, jagged strings, supporting one of Kesselman’s tour de force performances, as she manages to hit crescendos just this side of a shriek - appropriate for a song with lines like, “Insult is injury/taken personally/Saying this is not a random fracture that would have happened to any leg out there/This was a conscious unkindness.”

As stunning as the title piece is, for me some of its spike and clangor are on the borderline of the expected. Where the album truly ascends into the ether is in the second cycle, The Naomi Songs, a setting of four poems by Bill Knott sung by Theo Bleckmann in a perfect match of singer and song. Bleckmann brings everything he’s learned over his eclectic career to these sensual, mysterious songs, which blend the haunting drones of ancient troubadour tunes with modern production techniques such that Bleckmann is often duetting with himself. This works most spectacularly in the third song, which intertwines Knott’s two lines (“When our hands are alone, they open, like faces. There is no shore to their opening.”) to mesmerizing effect. In addition to the drones, additional drama comes from pizzicato strings and big piano chords. The Naomi Songs creates its own space wherever you happen to be, whether on a city street, at your sink washing dishes, or in a forest glade. Let it in and let it happen. 

The final work, The Branch Will Not Break, is nearly as wonderful. For this setting of seven poems by the great James Wright, Cerrone uses a small chorus of eight voices (here including Eliza Bagg, who was so fantastic in Alex Weisser’s And All The Days Were Purple) and keeps the harmonic range tight, like early polyphony. This further elevates Wright’s already heightened view of the quotidian, giving marvelous lines like, “In a field of sunlight between two pines/The droppings of last year’s horses/Blaze up into golden stones” a hymnal quality. 

Throughout the album, the musicians of Wild Up, under the direction of Christopher Rountree, meet the varied challenges of Cerrone’s scoring with sensitivity and spirit. Note should also be taken of the warm and involving sound of the record, for which credit is due to Nick Tipp. That his production, engineering, mixing, and mastering is so seamless is even more remarkable when you realize the vocalists and musicians were recorded separately. Great work on all counts and another brick in the edifice of achievement Cerrone has been building for the last several years. 

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - in manus tuas I wonder if they still make viola jokes. If yes, this gorgeous album by Lanzilotti, which engages head and heart in equal measure, should put an end to that branch of humor. Not only does she exhibit a technique that is both furiously virtuosic and fabulously free, but her conception of the album - her debut as a solo performer - is an exemplar of how to create a complete work of art. She achieves this by starting from a neat organizing principle, which is that all the works “are transcriptions or involve the act of transcribing,” as she puts it in her beautifully written liner notes, concluding the thought with this lovely passage: "Transcription enables us to learn from others as well as precess our own thoughts. In doing so, we deepen our understanding of each other. Transcription - empathy - as creative process." 

The boldest example of this may be the last piece, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Transitions (2014), which was originally written for cello and given a definitive performance by its commissioner, Michael Nicolas, on his landmark album of the same name. Before hearing Lanzilotti's version, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to hear any other cellist play it, much less a violist! But she makes it work wonderfully well, illuminating the structure of the work with her musically intelligent transcription and deeply committed playing. Also originally for cello is Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas (2009), which was inspired by the experience of hearing the Thomas Tallis’s motet in a Connecticut church. But there’s no background necessary to immerse yourself in this meditative snapshot’s yearning lines and disordered pizzicato. 

Lanzilotti’s own composition, gray (2017), is next, its startling alarm bell percussion (played by Sarah Mullins) shocking you out of your reverie. Based on a work for dance, this music-only version lacks nothing as the haunting viola lines interact like dark ribbons with the percussive sounds, the latter growing increasingly abstract as the bottom of a snare drum is employed alongside Hawaiian bamboo rattles called pū’ili. External sounds, like the rattling keys of a fellow commuter, fit right in, exposing the Cagean nature of the piece. 

Two works by Andrew Norman fill out the album, with the first, Sonnets (2011) giving Lanzilotti the opportunity to play with masterful pianist Karl Larson and indulge in occasional long lines that are almost romantic. The five short movements draw on fragments of Shakespeare sonnets, seeking to transcribe specific words (or feelings, at least) into sound. The second song, to be so tickled, takes its cue from Sonnet No. 128 and is especially delightful. Sabina (2008-09), the second Norman piece, also originates from a germ of extra-musical information, in this case the way light shines through the translucent stone windows of the Basilica Of Santa Sabina, and spins it into a fascinating web of sound. Even without knowing the visual inspiration, I think Sabina would still create shapes and shades in my mind. It must be treat to see Lanzilotti play it live. Hopefully she will include it - or any of the pieces from this remarkable album - the next time she graces NYC with a performance. 

Tracks from all of these albums, and so many more, can be found in my playlist, AnEarful: Of Note In 2019 (Classical). Click the little heart to keep up with comes out during the rest of the year - and please let me know what I've been missing.

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Monday, August 05, 2019


About 30 years ago a package appeared at my studio door addressed with a familiar chicken-scratch handwriting. I knew it was from Mike D. and within were two CD’s: Derek & The Dominoes’ classic 1970 album Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs and a single-disc compilation called Top Of The Stax: 20 Greatest Hits. There may have been a Post-It Note scrawled Happy Birthday, but I knew what it was for either way.

I turned my nose up at Layla, having been saturated by the title track during my childhood - until I listened. It quickly became a favorite album, a love that continues to this day, although I mainly listen to Derek bootlegs now. Hearing it in context even gave Layla new currency. 

The Stax collection was perhaps even more extraordinary, with not one duff track. I knew a lot of the songs, like Mel & Tim’s Starting All Over Again, Sam and Dave’s Hold On, I’m Coming, The Staple Singers’ Respect Yourself, Green Onions by Booker T & The M.G.’s and, of course, the mighty Shaft by Isaac Hayes. But I hadn’t heard most of them for something like 15 years and what was most amazing was that they operated both at the level of nostalgia and timelessness. As proven out by the other songs, there was a level of quality in songwriting, singing, playing, and production that was perhaps only rivaled by Motown. 

But Stax has that additional grit, with a little more funk to the grooves and real-life adult situations described in songs like I Forgot To Be Your Lover by William Bell and Woman To Woman by Shirley Brown. Top Of The Stax became a daily listen and one of the few albums that needed no adjustments to play at a party. My true love affair with Stax began with that humble collection. 

Over the years I tracked down some of the related albums, like Johnny Taylor’s Tailored In Silk or Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get by The Dramatics. And Isaac Hayes became an obsession, with revelation after revelation from albums like Hot Buttered Soul, To Be Continued and Black Moses, all the way up through his still underrated Polydor years. But when it came to Stax as a whole, I mainly followed the lead of their extensive reissue campaign and focused on the singles, even if they were sometimes packaged up in box sets of impressive weight and size. 

This past June that all changed, however, thanks to a flood of reissued albums celebrating both Black History Month and the 50th Anniversary of the “Soul Explosion” period at the label, which had them rebuilding after the devastating loss of Otis Redding and several member of the Bar-Kays. Many of the albums have been out of print for years in any form and all are appearing on streaming platforms for the first time. While the Soul Explosion took place over a couple of months in 1969, the years spanned by the campaign start in 1968 and stretch all the way to 1975, when the label was shuttered for the first time since 1957. 

While there’s plenty of music among the 30 albums that’s resolutely “on brand” for Stax, there’s enough variety that it makes clear another factor that distinguishes it from Motown: they still believed in older forms of African American music as popular music. While “The Sound Of Young America” certainly had its roots in the blues, gospel and girl group sounds of the 50’s, it was all packaged in bright, shiny new clothes or, by the end of the 60’s, psychedelic mufti. While Stax could go pop or incorporate rock influences, they also persisted in releasing instrumentals and doo wop or church-inflected sounds long after the heyday of those genres. And even if they didn’t hit it big with most of these albums, there is no air of preservation, such as with other labels like Arhoolie or Alligator. The entire history of black music was just in the mix, following the talent they had rather than shunting it into uncomfortable shapes. 

Speaking of mixes, as a public service, I have worked my way through all 30 albums and selected a representative cut from each - with one exception. The most anomalous record in the bunch is also a wretched, festering pile of absolute trash that should have remained in the dustbin of history. I’m speaking of the debut album by the band called The Knowbody Else, who later met with some success as Black Oak Arkansas. While the music is a tepid-at-best attempt at funky southern rock, the vocals by Jim Mangrum are some of the worst singing I have ever heard. Maybe he improved in the BOA days, but I can’t recall one of their songs and I have suffered enough at his hands. I’d rather hear an hour of Johnnie Taylor talking in his sleep. 

Moving right along, the only other qualification was to select a different track if the album contained any hits. So you won’t hear Frederick Knight singing I’ve Been Lonely Too Long, Taylor’s classic Who’s Making Love, or other well-known songs. What I hope you’ll discover is just how strong the bench was at Stax, even if radio or record buyers weren’t always listening in great numbers. Deep cuts, that is, from one of America’s greatest labels, with unsung heroes like Bettye Crutcher coming into focus as bedrock contributors to the catalog. And if a song by an artist you’ve never heard before grabs your attention, by all means check out the album. You may find your respect growing ever greater for the accomplishments of Jim Stewart, Mae Axton, Al Bell, and all the singers, songwriters and players who made this stuff happen. 

Here’s a brief rundown of what you’re going to hear. 

Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy by Booker T. & The M.G.’s from Soul Limbo (1969)

The cheese factor can run a bit high on this album, but on this song it works thanks to the interplay between Steve Cropper’s guitar and Booker T.’s organ. Oft-recorded, the song was written by Ray Whitley working with  J.R. Cobb Of Spooky, Stormy and Atlanta Rhythm Section fame. Even as an instrumental, the title of the song says it all!

Soul-A-Lujah by Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Pervis Staples, Cleotha Staples, Carla Thomas, and Mavis Staples from Boy Meets Girl (Classic Stax Duets) (1969)

This handsome package was well worth the $10 I paid for an original vinyl pressing a few years ago but there’s no denying that it doesn’t quite live up to the excitement generated by the concept. For one thing, the re-recordings of evergreens like I Thank You or Piece Of My Heart have nothing on the originals. For another, the newer songs aren’t very memorable. But this number personifies “exuberance” with a vocal arrangement nearly matching Sly Stone’s ingenuity. Remember the names Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, and Raymond Jackson - they wrote this song and many others under the collective name We Three.

I’ve Got A Feeling by Ollie & The Nightingales from Ollie & The Nightingales (1969)

Formerly The Dixie Nightingales (taking off on The Dixie Hummingbirds), this gospel group led by Ollie Hoskins was straight out of the church and gussied up for prime time. As that would imply, the call and response is key, but Al Jackson, Jr.’s extra sharp drumming drives the bus. A fine album overall, even if it doesn’t touch similarly motivated collections by The Staple Singers. 

Wishes And Dishes by The Sweet Inspirations from Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia (1973)

The tail end of a brand name that launched the careers of Doris Troy, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and Cissy Houston while singing backup for Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix, the group now consisted of Estelle Brown, Myrna Smith, and Sylvia Shemwell. It was up to them to honor the legacy - and they delivered. I think it's Estelle singing lead on this one, bringing a gospel fervor to a slow-burner with adult themes. Producers/co-writers David Porter and Ronnie Williams wisely let the song go beyond the length of a single. The whole album is a worthy slab of sweet 70's soul.

So Nice by The Mad Lads from The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Lads (1969)

"Do you remember when we used to play mommy and daddy each and every day," John Gary Williams sings in his creamy high tenor in a song drenched in soda shoppe fantasies and stacked harmonies. Bettye Crutcher collaborated with Carla Thomas' brother Marvell to write this one and it's definitely the most memorable track on the album.

Come On Back by J.J. Barnes from J.J. Barnes & Steve Mancha: Rare Stamps (1969)

This compilation gathered up singles by Barnes and Mancha, like this one originally released on the Groovesville label in 1967. Co-written by Barnes and Don Davis (who later revived Johnnie Taylor's career with Disco Lady), the vocal bears a striking similarity to Marvin Gaye. So does the arrangement, but the strings and conga make it sound about five years ahead of what Gaye was doing at the same time. Influence is a two-way street...

Somebody's Been Sleeping In My Bed by Johnnie Taylor from Rare Stamps (1969)

Compiling Taylor singles, including Who's Making Love, makes for a great album. This scorching blues from 1967 also has the Bettye Crutcher stamp and a masterful vocal from Taylor. Blues, soul, funk, disco - there was little he couldn't do.

My Baby Specializes by Soul Children from Soul Children (1969)

Formed by Isaac Hayes and David Porter after losing Sam & Dave to Atlantic, it took a while for this vocal group to reach their peak in 1973 with I'll Be The Other Woman. But this album is full of gems, many of them covers of earlier Stax singles like this one originally sung by William Bell & Judy Clay a year earlier. With four effervescent vocalists and a trademark, low-slung Stax arrangement, the song is a heckuva groove.

I've Fallen In Love by Carla Thomas from Memphis Queen (1969)

While her chart success was diminishing a couple of years after B-A-B-Y and Tramp (with Otis Redding), there was no lack of artistic success on this album. Swirling strings introduce this moody number, written by Thomas herself, and her complicated relationship to love is embedded in the bittersweet melody.

Don't Make Me A Storyteller - Steve Mancha from J.J. Barnes & Steve Mancha: Rare Stamps (1969)

Kind of a utility player, Mancha never made an album but based on this track he had a fine way with pleading his way through a song. It was also the definitive version of a song later waxed by many other Stax artists, so all credit due to Mancha.

Jilted by The Goodees from Candy-Coated Goodees (1969)

Strings, electric sitar, epic horns - they threw the kitchen sink at this updated girl group song, a typically adult story about getting pregnant and getting dumped on the altar. Co-written and produced by Don Davis, both the composition and sound reflect the rare intrusion of British psychedelia into the normally all-American world of Stax.

One With Sugar by The Mar-Keys from Damifiknow (1969)

In various incarnations, The Mar-Keys had provided back-up on many Stax sessions while occasionally hitting it big themselves. By this point, they were essentially Booker T. & The M.G.'s plus the Memphis Horns and much of this album is made up of redundant covers of hits like Mustang Sally or Knock On Wood. The track has a nice gutbucket feel, however, and all the cowbell you need.

Now You Got Me Loving You by The Dramatics from A Dramatic Experience (1973)

The Dramatics had been plying their trade since 1964, finally hitting it big with their debut LP,  Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get, in 1971. This follow-up doesn't mess with the sly, proto-disco sonics and is nearly as good. Tony Hester, who wrote In The Rain, also penned this number and produced the album.

Baby It's Real by Rufus Thomas from Crown Prince of Dance (1973)

Carla's father was known for extremely danceable, near-novelty songs like Do The Funky Chicken and Do The Push And Pull, but amongst the pandering tracks on this album (Funky Robot, etc.), this song also proved he could lay you out with a ballad when he wanted to - he should have done more like it!

Don't Mess With My Money, My Honey, or My Woman by Mel & Tim from Starting All Over Again (1972)

This track, which opened up the album that contained one of their biggest hits, has an almost Jackson 5 feel and witty, taunting lyrics. The production, by Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins of Muscle Shoals fame, is slightly more widescreen than the usual Stax sound. 

You Cut Up The Clothes In The Closet My Dreams by Melvin Van Peebles from Don't Play Us Cheap (1972)

The film version of this musical by Van Peebles, known for basically inventing Blaxploitation cinema with Sweet Sweetback's Badassssss Song, was by some reports a misfire. But even bad reviews praised Joshie Jo Armstead's committed performance on this gospel-fueled song, the most well-developed track on this odd album.

Walk Tall (In This Here Land) by John KaSandra from Color Me Human (1970)

Released on Respect, Stax's political offshoot, this album by John S. Anderson is filled with feel-good social criticism/empowerment songs. He's obviously fired up by the smoking-hot arrangement on this song and hearing him dig into the words "Walk tall!" along with the horns is an addictive thrill. While this may be the strongest single song, fans of Joe Tex and Rodriguez should definitely dig into this forgotten treasure.

You Make The Sun Shine by The Temprees from Love Maze (1973)

As impossibly smooth as the Chi-Lites or The Manhattans, this vocal group on Stax's We Produce subsidiary is ripe for rediscovery. There are many pleasures to be found on their second album, but this haunting number, written by Leon Moore, would not get out of my head. Kanye West, who used the song on The Corner by Common, seems to agree. 

Baby, That's A No No by Barbara Lewis from The Many Grooves of Barbara Lewis (1970)

Lewis, who hit the Top 5 with her own composition Hello Stranger (you heard it in Moonlight) in 1963, was already a decade into her career when she recorded this, her only album for Stax. It was also her last album, although she continued performing until 2017. Swathed in echo, her voice sounds flown in from another era on this collection, which is one of the reasons it doesn't quite hit the mark. Also taking on Windmills Of Your Mind after Dusty Springfield was a fool's game for any singer, but this song almost makes you believe she could compete with Aretha or at least Dionne Warwick.

I Could Never Be President by Johnnie Taylor from The Johnnie Taylor Philosophy Continues (1969)

"I could never be President/As long as I'm lovin' you," Taylor sings on this lively number written by We Three. It's just lively enough to make you forget you were hoping he was doing a socially conscious number like Syl Johnson's Is It Because I'm Black? The album has too many covers (It's Your Thing - really, Johnnie?) but goes down fairly easily.

People, Get It Together by Eddie Floyd from California Girl (1970)

Floyd, who co-wrote Knock On Wood with Steve Cropper, was equally at home on either side of the studio glass. In fact, he co-wrote all of the best songs on this long-player (mostly with Booker T.) and gives his all on this inspirational stomper, occasionally sounding like Otis Redding reborn. Floyd is still out there pitching and performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017.

Phases Of Reality by William Bell from Phases Of Reality (1972)

Bell has been recording since 1961, hitting it out of the park with his first single, You Don't Miss Your Water. He won a Grammy two years ago for best Americana album and performed Born Under A Bad Sign - which he wrote! - with Gary Clark, Jr. All this is to say, I shouldn't have been surprised that it was hard to pick just one song from this slab of 70's funk, also produced by Bell. It's easy to imagine Sly nodding his head along to this one. Overall, maybe the best album in the whole campaign.

Let Me Down Easy by Inez Foxx from Inez Foxx At Memphis (1973)

Everyone knows Mockingbird, which Foxx recorded with her brother Charlie in 1963. But that chirpy number is world away from this dark-hued jam, a remake of the 1965 Betty Lavette standard written by Wrecia Holloway and James McDougall - and at least as definitive. Her assured, emotive singing throughout will make you wish this wasn't her only solo album.

It Ain't Easy by The Bar Kays from Do You See What I See (1972)

On tracks like this, The Bar Kays made some of the most convincing 70's music in the Stax catalog. The band, which had to be completely reconfigured after four of their members died alongside Otis Redding in 1967, was now coming hot off of backing Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul and ready to prove themselves as a funky, socially-conscious force to be reckoned with. Let's hope the prior album, Black Rock, is reissued soon.

Harlem Heaven by The Rance Allen Group from A Soulful Experience (1975)

Known mainly for his modernizing influence on gospel, Rance Allen's sweet falsetto perfectly describes a more earthly heaven on this track from a fine album released on Stax's Truth subsidiary. The reggae-influenced arrangement, by Ronnie Williams, who co-wrote the album with David Porter, is as charming as the song. 

If I Give It Up, I Want It Back by David Porter from Victim Of The Joke?...An Opera (1971)

Even though he wrote those dozens of hits alongside Hayes in the 60's, Porter on his own as a frontman was not the same proposition. Full of odd interludes and an ill-conceived cover of The Beatles' Help, the album falls flat as a whole but his belief in the Stax sound of earlier years is almost enough to make you forget that he was stuck in the past. Hayes was already far in the future and would never look back.

I Let My Chance Go By by Frederick Knight from I've Been Lonely For So Long (1973)

The title song outshines the rest of the album, but there's nothing wrong with this regret-soaked ballad and the out-chorus alone is worth the price of admission. Don't feel bad for Knight - he wrote Be For Real and Ring My Bell, both of which have had long lives.

Little Bluebird by Little Milton from Waiting For Little Milton (1973)

When you learn that Little Milton made his name on the Chess label it makes perfect sense that he was as accomplished a guitarist as he was a singer. He had also been honing his chops since 1953! Working in a vein similar to B.B. King (he covers The Thrill Is Gone on this album), he blows out this old Booker T./Hayes/Porter tune into an eloquent and epic blues. 

Soul On Fire by Kim Weston from Kim Kim Kim (1970)

It's hard to understand why this Motown alumnus didn't become another Gloria Gaynor or Thelma Houston after hearing this nearly overwhelming performance of a song she wrote with her husband Mickey Stevenson. The soul was indeed on fire. Unfortunately, however, she didn't make an album for 20 years, skipping the Studio 54 era entirely. Listen to the whole album and imagine what could've been.

Better Get A Move On by Louise McCord from Wattstax: The Living Word (1973)

While any Stax playlist worth its salt should have something by Isaac Hayes or The Staple Singers, both of whom appear on this live album, this absolutely astonishing performance of Bettye Crutcher's song by gospel great McCord just seemed like perfect way to bring things to a close. You will be forgiven if you clap along with the audience!

Let me know what hits the mark for you and visit this site for more info from Stax.

Listen to all the tracks here or below and keep track of other 2019 reissues by following this playlist.

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Record Roundup: Out Of The Past