That Herbie Hancock is basically an abstract player is the secret of his versatility of style?which is another way of saying that he has no stable sense of taste, being willing to play a line of notes in almost any idiom or sound-world if it fits. It was during his Columbia years that he made his most blatantly commercial music, of which about half of this four-disc set consists. Since it’s unlikely that many enjoy such a wide range of approaches, this selection, irrespective of its size, doesn’t make much sense. Better to have separated the material into its categories (and audiences).
Before his Top 10 hit “You’re Gorgeous” knocked him off course, Stephen “Baby Bird” Jones had written and recorded over 400 demos on cheap keyboards and guitar. The limited edition, DIY albums he released between 1988 and 1994 (I Was Born A Man, Bad Shave, Fatherhood, The Happiest Man Alive, Dying Happy) consistently topped the indie charts in their day and constitute a cycle of forlorn, heartfelt bedroom symphonies that chronicle unemployed outsider Jones’ passage into adulthood. Prolific and poignant, this is how a chart-less Jarvis might have sounded.
This dazzling set was originally released in 1991, when Dylan’s reputation had sunk about as low as it has ever been. The Bootleg Series was a perfectly judged, and desperately needed, reminder of Dylan’s roots, and of the way he’d used them to create so much transfiguring music of his own. It reached from early-’60s talking blues and gutbucket folk to wildly different unreleased versions of the likes of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone” before galloping on to such recent epics as “Foot Of Pride” and “Blind Willie McTell”. The great mystery was, why the hell hadn’t we heard this stuff before?
What, exactly, do Nirvana sound like? It’s a tough job cutting your way through to the music of this legendary, blighted band when all their records are so hemmed in by context. How can we judge songs from a decade ago that are permanently linked with cultural change and personal tragedy, whose innovations have been exploited and devalued by tribute-bearers in the interim?
The good?and surprising?news about Nirvana is how well these 15 songs stand up. Fears that the sandblasted, supercharged tracks from Nevermind, in particular, might sound dated prove thrillingly wrong. Just the first eight or nine seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are enough, from Kurt Cobain’s choppy warm-up riff, through Dave Grohl’s formidable kickstart and the dam-burst of power and melody that follows it. The quiet/loud dynamic might be ancient news now, and Butch Vig’s production skills devalued by his gloomy loyalty to Garbage. But “Teen Spirit” astounds, the sense of a band manoeuvring influences?Pixies, Beatles, Black Sabbath, Fugazi even?and originality in an intuitive, anti-cynical way. Often forgotten amid the vitriol, a significant part of Kurt Cobain wanted to be a rock’n’roll star, however much the process scared and disgusted him.
This is the side of Cobain which dominates Nirvana. Plainly, his paymasters at Geffen would like him memorialised as an anthemic figurehead rather than a brilliant contrarian. One suspects Courtney Love prefers it that way, too, since she so keenly denounced punk ethics and underground scenes once they had exhausted their usefulness to her. Thus we get the assimilable, sweeter moments from the early years (“About A Girl”, “Been A Son”, “Sliver”), the hits from Nevermind, and the ones from In Utero that sound most like the hits from Nevermind.
There’s nothing to fault here musically. Still, it does provide a somewhat lopsided view of Nirvana, one where their most splenetic and radical music is quietly afforded second-class status. What’s more, the three tunes selected from Unplugged, including Cobain’s pointed version of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and coruscating howl through Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, let him be seen as a neat part of the rock continuum instead of an artist who was in a deep state of conflict over his relationship with traditions. Wonderful music, sure, but the tidying-up of the legacy verges on Stalinist: as if Kurt Cobain has been elected into a private club just to stop him trying to break its windows.
Fortunately, the much-heralded “You Know You’re Right” redresses the balance somewhat. Recorded in January 1994, it’s Cobain’s one last great subversion of his formula: the quiet/loud routine mangled into a wracked, venomous dirge. As the token unreleased track, it’s sensational. Better still, as a riposte to an industry that smugly assumed Nirvana would ditch that nasty screaming business and turn into R.E.M., it proves that Kurt Cobain still had the spirit for a fight, and the compulsion to make uncompromised, visceral music, even as his will to live was slipping away.
Rusby’s fourth album is effectively a retrospective, revisiting material from all phases of her career to date with new recordings of seven old songs, plus remastered versions of four more and a couple of live tracks. There are also two new songs that make you wish for more. Rusby has a voice that can squeeze the heart, that makes old ballads sound fresh and vital. As a holding exercise, this collection will do admirably, but roll on the next one!
First released in ’94, this tribute to one of rock’s scuzziest troubadours featured many of his punky peers, including the three Dolls that survived him, all paying evidently heartfelt homage. The 2002 version is bolstered by Marc Almond’s well-chosen “Hurt Me” but undermined by a colourless Glen Matlock, Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s faithful but incompetent “Personality Crisis”, and the inexplicable dropping of Mike Monroe’s “So Alone”. Thunders himself-live, acoustic and hidden at the end-shows them how it’s done.
Compiler Daryl Easlea has assembled these four CDs thematically, one each devoted to roots, dance, politics and love songs (CD four includes a sublime sequence: EW&F’s “That’s The Way Of The World,” Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” Kool And The Gang’s “Summer Madness” and Smokey’s “Quiet Storm”). It gives token stylistic nods to the likes of Louis Jordan and John Lee Hooker, though it mostly settles for Motown, Stax, JB and ’70s disco.
Though the music is largely faultless, this anthology can only hope to scratch the surface.
SINGLES As AND Bs
The flawed genius of Wood was multidirectional. Wizzard’s hits like “See My Baby Jive” are ornate but homemade po-mo rock’n’roll, the exact midpoint between Spector and Meek; other tracks like “Bend Over Beethoven” could almost be Zappa. But for Wood’s undiluted vision, the first CD of his solo anthology stands as a UK Smile; ranging from the Scottish reggae of “Going Down The Road” to inventing Kid Creole on “Indiana Rainbow” and the shattered beauty of the greatest song he ever wrote, “The Rain Came Down On Everything.” It is best to pass over disc two in regretful silence.
JUST LIKE EVERYBODY PART 2
As with ESG, 23 Skidoo are enjoying fresh reappraisal. Following on from last year’s album reissues, these compendiums will thrill aficionados and newcomers alike. The Gospel Comes To New Guinea zooms in on their industrial/improv strengths via the grisly tape loops of “Just Like Everybody” and floor-magnet “Coup” (appropriated by the Chemicals on “Block Rockin’ Beats”)
Just Like Everybody Part 2 features largely unreleased material from when 23 Skidoo evolved into production unit Ronin: blueprints for Ninja Tune-style jazzy hip hop.
This twin-disc survey, compiled by Uncut’s contributing editor Nigel Williamson, tells you everything you need to know about “Americana”, alt.country, or whatever else you’d call it. It highlights the strengths of this fairly elastic genre?its rootsiness, melodic qualities, indie-style rejection of studio airbrushing, and tolerance, or even encouragement of, idiosyncrasy?while also exposing what drives non-believers nuts. In the latter category come a certain saminess of tone and tempo, a reliance on a narrow template of instruments, and the absence of enough genuinely original talents working in this field. For example, if Josh Rouse or Thea Gilmore didn’t exist, how many people would actually notice? Is any adjective stronger than ‘agreeable’ really applicable to the Radar Brothers or Dan Bern? Does BR5-49’s version of “Hickory Wind” serve any purpose other than to drive listeners back to the Gram Parsons original?
At least it gives the real talents the space to shine, like Steve Earle with “John Walker’s Blues” and disc one’s opener, Bob Dylan’s “High Water”. Sounding older than the hills and more inexplicable than the universe itself, the Bard serves up an object lesson in the timeless mysteries of American folk and blues. Lambchop hit a fragile, soulful note with “I Can Hardly Spell My Name”, The Flaming Lips provide “Do You Realize??”, and Jeff Finlin underlines his simmering potential with “I Am The King”, a starkly melancholic affair containing more than a hint of the young Randy Newman. Warren Zevon’s darkly Leonard Cohen-ish “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared” isn’t his best-ever song, but at least it’s by Warren Zevon, while Silver Jews risk a tarring-and-feathering with “Horseleg Swastika”. Nice to see the criminally unsung Rodney Crowell in here with “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen”.
One encouraging aspect of this collection is the strong showing by the Brit contingent. Grand Drive’s “Track 40’s Gone” lights up disc two, hotly pursued by The Arlenes and the desolate “Lonely Won’t Leave Me Alone”. A tip of the hat, too, to The Vessels and their cunningly off-kilter “Don’t Waste Your Time”.
Food for thought.
Nowhere is the line between genius and madness so thin and permeable in recent music than in the work of Miles Davis; nor is there any critical divide deeper in jazz than the line drawn by Bitches Brew in 1969. Opinion on the 22 years of music he continued to make thereafter is still fundamentally fissured on the issue of whether what Davis played in his long final period can be called music at all. This gigantic 20-disc boxed set, retailing at an amazing
Todd Rundgren’s ’70s heyday has been late in busting into the legit-bootleg CD reissue market, but this power-pack of prog-punk-pop does help to redress the balance. “Love Alone”, “Trapped” and “Last Of The New Wave Riders”, here, can only be described as the hybrid of an ecstatically damaged mind, one of rock’s tightest-ever bands and sheer live energy. Music to punch the air to.
WRAP AROUND JOY/THOROUGHBRED
HER GREATEST HITS
With her first husband, Gerry Goffin, Carole King wrote many distinguished songs for other artists during the early ’60s. After her break-up from Goffin, she embarked on a solo singer-songwriter career with Writer (1970), following it up with her multi-million-selling hit album Tapestry (1971).
Of the remainder of her records on Ode/Epic, only 1973’s Fantasy attained the same level of artistic and commercial success, although the rest of what she recorded rarely fell below her basic high standards. This two-albums-on-one-disc selection from her early ’70s work is complete but for Really Rosie (1975).
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
“Rapper’s Delight” may have opened an extremely important floodgate, but God does it go on. Unexpectedly, but thankfully, three of the six tracks on the Sugarhill Gang’s 1980 debut album are exquisite post-Philly soul ballads (“Passion Play” is almost a “Moments In Love” prototype). Otherwise, the rapping has dated very badly.
On Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s 1982 debut, “Wheels Of Steel” and “The Message” remain astonishingly fresh, but too many gloopy ballads undermine the rest of the album. Only the brutal electro of “Scorpio” stands up. Neophytes should instead be directed to the excellent 1999 three-CD Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel compilation for a definitive Flash overview.
MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY
TOO OLD TO ROCK’N’ROLL… TOO YOUNG TO DIE!
This was Ian Anderson’s three-album atonement for his intemperate 1973 ‘retirement’ after press criticism. The sprightly War Child (1974) and the hauntedly excellent Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) bristle with ideas and a genuinely innovative flair for rethinking rock harmony, rhythm and texture (notwithstanding the former’s horrid string arrangements).
Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll… (1976), however, was a riposte too far; arid, self-regarding and mundane, it’s an unlikely prelude to the band’s 1977 masterpiece, Songs From The Wood.
Thirty-four songs spread over two CDs: an impressive record by anyone’s standards, even if some of the later ‘hits’ were comparatively minor ones. In addition, there are tracks (eg, “Tiny Dancer”, “Bennie And The Jets”) which weren’t hit singles but album favourites. Further selections?”Levon” from Madman Across The Water, “Pinball Wizard”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, “Border Song”, “True Love”, “I Don’t Want To Go On With You Like That” and others?appear on a limited-edition third disc.
In between helming an incredible nine Reprise albums for Nancy Sinatra (1966-69), Hazlewood’s dazzlingly brief MGM career fetched up three solo efforts. The Very Special World Of… and Lee Hazlewood-ism: Its Cause And Cure are both indelibly stamped with the man’s chocolate-deep tenor and arranger Billy Strange’s grandiose orchestral vistas.
The real treat is Something Special, shelved at the time to ease the return to Reprise and here making its digital debut. Pared down to acoustic guitar and piano, this is Hazlewood at once ruminative, playful and self-lacerating, not least on “Stone Cold Blues”: “Why do they call the steak Sinatral And the hamburger Hazlewood?” Essential cuisine nonetheless.
Since their home-produced Trinity Sessions scored big in 1988, delighting critics with their radical reworkings of “Blue Moon” and “Sweet Jane” (both included here), the Cowboy Junkies have recorded half a dozen studio albums and a couple of live sets. True, much of their material sounds samey, and even Margot Timmins’ haunting voice can grate after a while, but lyrically they travel amazing territory (see “A Horse In The Country”) and are capable of variety: “Southern Rain” is a “Day Tripper”-ish rocker, “To Live Is To Fly” is a hootenanny delight and Townes Van Zandt’s “Cowboy Junkies Lament” is positively jaunty. If you need a second Cowboy Junkies album, this is probably the one.
You might imagine a world awash with Bob Palmer’s bird-pulling confections, but this TV-advertised disc hits the dreaded Christmas market adding a remixed “Addicted To Love” to the usual “Some Guys”/”Every Kinda People” choices. Palmer’s New Orleans sojourn, which resulted in ’74’s Allen Toussaint-produced Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, is where he came in as a solo artist, and his polished, gents’ club pop is brought up to date with a sneak preview from new disc Drive. Fancy the roof down?
WAR & PEACE/INVOLVED
For diehard Northern Soulsters, the crowd-pleasing Edwin Starr remains the true essence of the Motown sound. Though perhaps now best known for the Norman Whitfieldproduced “War” (which he later performed with Bruce Springsteen), it’s the four-to-the-floor Starr-man of “S.O.S. [Stop Her On Sight]”, “Agent 00 Soul”, “Headline News” and “25 Miles” that sustains his cult following. Of these two-albums-on-one-CD packages, Soul Master/25 Miles will enthral ’60s purists while War & Peace/Involved is for those who prefer their soul psychedelic.