What I Listened To
Duke Ellington, The OKeh Ellington, Columbia 1991; recorded 1927-1930
Living on an academic time table, at my house it's time to grade final exams. Since that seemingly endless task inspires misanthropy, I need an antidote. Lucky for me that Duke Ellington existed. Do I really need three versions of "East St. Louis Toodle-oo"? You bet!
John Cale, Vintage Violence, Columbia 1970
As Monty Python used to say, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" Well, nobody could have expected this exquisite pop album as Cale's initial project after Lou Reed tossed him out of the Velvet Underground when Reed wanted the Velvets to make more conventional music. On his own, Cale showed just who had the knack for it (hint: not Reed, at least not yet). "Big White Cloud" and "Amsterdam" are two of the finest songs and performances from a career studded with neglected gems.
The Chieftans, Bells of Dublin, RCA 1991
This album is a staple of our Christmas season. It's holiday music, sure, but not so that you'd notice. Reels and hornpipes mingle with traditional holiday fare such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "O Holy Night." Nothing sanctimonious, and with recovering junkie Marianne Faithful singing "I Saw Three Ships a Sailing," it offers the hope of redemption for every one of us. Actually, there's a whole pack of famous guests on vocals, but they're not pictured on the cover, because they're not the reason to listen.
Tom Waits, Used Songs (1973-1980), Rhino 2001
None of his early albums were consistent enough for me to replace my vinyl with digital copies, so this recent anthology fills a nice gap in my collection. He used to seem so Bohemian: a self-conscious throwback to the 1950s beat poets and their love of jazz. Now he just sounds like a classic songwriter whose sweet voice (on "Ol' 55") gradually gave way to hoarse croak. And "Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night" just sounds better the more you play it.
Hot Tuna, Hot Tuna, RCA 1970 (expanded CD reissue, 1996)
Last Tuesday night was election day in the U.S.A. Looking around for something suitable, this one's red-white-and-blue cover turns out to be oddly symbolic, as does the opening sequence of "Hesitation Blues," "How Long Blues," and "Uncle Sam Blues." It turns out that the Nixon era shows us how sneakily subversive pop music can be. And I find it utterly charming that Jorma Kaukonen always sings as if he has a sinus problem: the technical virtuosity is always in the guitar, not to mention Jack Casady's bass.
Flatt and Scruggs, Songs of the Famous Carter Family, Columbia 1961
When they got together for this relaxed session with Mother Maybelle Carter, they did not know that they were about to become very, very famous with "Ballad of Jed Clampett" (the TV theme for the Beverly Hillbillies). With that fame and fortune, Columbia would pair them with a hot producer and a pile of contemporary pop songs that would eventually spur the defection of Lester Flatt. This album was the (purist) calm before the (sellout) storm. It includes a resplendent rendition of "You Are My Flower." A better twenty-nine minutes of traditional American song is hard to find.
Jimmy Eat World, Clarity, Capitol 1999
How could I resist an album with a song called "Your New Aesthetic"? And is that cover image an allusion to the four ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water? In other words, a quartet of brainy, back-to- basics rock and rollers bashing out heavenly little pop songs. Or so it goes for twelve tracks (the perfect number for a pop album). Track thirteen is a strange coda: over 16 minutes, its tape loops and feel of Simon-and-Garfunkel-on-acid took a bit of accommodation on my part. Now I hum along.
Mott the Hoople, Mott, Columbia 1973
I hear "All the Young Dudes" perhaps twice a year on the radio. Otherwise, these pioneers of glam rock are undeservedly forgotten (unless you count lead singer Ian Hunter's song "Cleveland Rocks," picked up on the Drew Carey Show). But Martin Scorsese knows a good thing when he hears it, and he opened Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore with a blast of the album's opener, "All the Way From Memphis." This album influenced the Clash and its over-the-top production underlies Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." These guys knew how to be brutal ("Violence") and melodic (but never saccharine). After leaving Mott to form Bad Company, guitarist Mick Ralphs would never again do anything this interesting.
Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, Verve 1954
Reissued on CD with one bonus track, her voice alternatively smoky and sweet, it sounds as if she's right there in the room with you. Maybe it's the time of year, but this version of "September Song" keeps pulling me back. It perfectly captures the twilight mood of summer on the cusp of autumn. Clifford Brown's trumpet deserves second billing (recording at the end of 1954, Brown matches anything Miles Davis produced that year), but the surprise on many tracks is Herbie Mann's flute.
King Sunny Adé, Ju Ju Music, Mango, 1982
I've been listening to this one, on and off, for twenty years. It never gets old, which is another way of saying that it's timeless. Despite up to 20 musicians going at once, it's layered but never cluttered. Talking drums are the cushion, the women's voices are on top, and in between there are guitars, guitars, and more guitars. Pedal steel guitar might sound like a postmodern joke, but the African sensibility is to recognize that it's the perfect way to bend pitch, perfectly complementing the talking drums. Oh, and King Sunny sings.
Linda Thompson, Fashionably Late, Rounder 2002
The title is cute, alluding to the 17 years since her last album. It could have been called Fashionably Morose, because I don't know when I've heard a set of songs more infused with death, misogyny, and general misery. Actually, I do know: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). This isn't actual folk music, but an amazing simulation. With Nick Drake's string arranger, and Van Dyke Parks playing a mean accordion. 8/19/02
Listen to my recent
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live in New York City, Columbia 2001
20 tracks on 2 discs, but unless you're a true believer, this live album (his 3rd) has only one clear reason to exist. That's the song "American Skin (41 Shots)." Now if a studio version of that song had been included on Springsteen's most recent album, The Rising would have gained some genuine complexity, contrasting the heroism of New York City's finest with one their more questionable moments. Here, it's interesting to note the "41 Shots" is followed by "Lost in the Flood," an early Springsteen tale of urban life in which the cops also blow someone away. 8/9/02
Ryan Adams, Gold, Lost Highway 2001
Although I admired his earlier recordings with the band Whiskeytown, I was avoiding this album because of its strong associations with September 11. (The video for "New York, New York" simply annoys me.) But "Firecracker" has an undeniable hook and, melody aside, the slide guitar colorings are the real pleasure of the slow ones. Who, exactly, is sideman Ethan Johns? He generally outshines bandleader Adams.
Bill Frisell, Blues Dream, Elektra/Asylum 2001
True mood music for postmoderns? Technically, I suppose Frisell is a jazz guitarist. And jazz is supposed to be rooted in the blues. Here, Frisell addresses a question that few have bothered to ask: what does a genuine hybrid of jazz and country music sound like? As with any good jazz, it's evocative, haunting, and delightfully inventive. One regrets that Chet Atkins and Miles Davis never got together to make a different kind of fusion music.
The Concert for Bangladesh, Apple 1972; CD 1991
Bob Dylan is coming to town soon and I'm listening to highlights of the back catalogue. On vinyl, Dylan's five songs occupy one side of this set of concert highlights. On compact disc, Dylan dominates disc two. Arguably, these are the strongest 25 minutes of live Dylan available anywhere. If you don't "get" the attraction of Dylan, start here. If you still don't get it, quit.
Squeeze, Greatest Hits, A&M 1996
Why such an unimaginative title? After all, very few of these were actually HITS. Instead, how about More Songs about Dating and Infidelity? Or, drawing on their one huge hit, Tempted by the Fruit of Another? Drawing about equally from each of Squeeze's initial nine studio albums, I bet I could play this at home, tell my teenage kids that it's the Beatles, and they'd believe me. In fact, as soon as one of them gets tired of their Beatles' compilation CDs and asks me, "Dad, what does Rubber Soul sound like?", I'll just put this on.
Bob Marley, Exodus, Tuff Gong 1977; Expanded CD remaster 2001
I owned this when it was new, and promptly sold it at a used record store without ever listening to side two, where Marley stuck the love songs that made him a genuine superstar. I never got that far because side one, the "rasta" side, seemed bland in comparison with early albums like Catch a Fire and Burnin'. Now I appreciate the idea that the groove may be more important than the words. With a second disc of live material and the once rare single "Punky Reggae Party," the two Curtis Mayfield tracks emphasize that reggae had surprisingly deep roots in the U.S.A.
Galactic, We Love Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina's Volcano 2001
Driven by an unrelenting New Orleans groove, this live album serves up a dense gumbo of sound. Dominated by the funk grooves of the Crescent City's own Meters, there are also strong hints of both Tower of Power and Little Feat. Vocalist Theryl DeClouet is the band's weakest link, but vocals are almost beside the point here. 4/26/02
Etta James, Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions, MCA/Chess 1968; expanded CD MCA 2001
In the late 1960s, Muscle Shoals Alabama was music heaven, and Etta James was one of its angels. Rivaling Aretha Franklin for soulfullness, even "I Got You Babe" (yes, the Sonny and Cher tune) is completely believable.
The Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll, Capitol 1988
I've played this dozens of times in my office while I'm working. It never intrudes. After it's over, I cannot recall a single element of it. This is wallpaper music par excellence.
Chappaquiddick Skyline, Sub Pop 1999
I suppose that this album answers the question of what it sounds like when you combine a country-roots sensibility with a Master's degree in creative writing. A whisper of a voice floats over subtle arrangements that recall the hushed calm of the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Jesus." The opening song keeps repeating "I hate my life." It should be depressing, but here it's presented as a fact, as something to move beyond. 3/15/02
The Smiths, Singles, Reprise 1995
Elvis Costello, This Year's Model,
Big Star, Third: Sister Lovers
Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed
What I Listened to in 2005
What I Listened to in 2004
What I Listened to in 2003
What I Listened to in 2001
All text © 2002 Theodore Gracyk NOT sponsored by