Charlie Haden Family and Friends
4 stars (out of 4)
This is one of the great recordings of 2008 -- and a major piece of recording history besides.
In early October 1959, what is now called Ornette Coleman's "classic" quartet recorded "Ramblin,'" probably the most easily assimilable single piece in all of Coleman's revolutionary early jazz on the Atlantic label. In the middle of Charlie Haden's influential and pivotal "Ramblin'" bass solo, he suddenly quoted the great kick-butt country fiddle tune "Old Joe Clark." It blended seamlessly -- not only with Haden's own solo but also Ornette Coleman's tune. In just a few notes, Haden revealed the folk origins of jazz that people at the time found to be disturbingly radical.
What very few, if any, knew almost half a century ago is that Coleman's crucial bass player had begun musical life singing country music on the radio while practically a toddler with the Haden family band.
On this brilliant, heart-rending disc, Charlie Haden, at 70, returns for the first time to his country roots with his own family, including his three lovely triplet daughters (one of whom is recording artist Petra Haden). And his son-in-law -- who happens to be the hilarious and wildly extroverted movie actor Jack Black -- sings "Old Joe Clark" with Haden on bass leading a high-octane bluegrass band to die for (including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Bela Fleck, no less, on banjo). It's four minutes of stomping musical joy in which one of the great living jazz musicians comes hilariously full circle in his musical life.
There is almost no way to overstate the joyous charge and poignant emotionalism of this project returning Haden to the music of his boyhood. And some great contemporary musicians knew it, too. Haden's guests include Elvis Costello (singing "You Win Again"), Roseanne Cash ("Wildwood Flower"), Vince Gill ("Rambling Boy"), Bruce Hornsby (on "2 0/2 0 Vision" and piano on several tracks), Ricky Skaggs ("Road of Broken Hearts") and, on several of the disc's greatest moments, Haden's fellow jazzman from Missouri, Pat Metheny.
And yet its most profound and moving moments are almost pure amateurism -- the lovely folk voice of his daughter Tanya and, especially, Haden himself ending the disc by singing the glorious old Missouri folksong "Shenandoah."
Charlie Haden is a professional musician but by no means a professional singer. Shenandoah is the town in which he was born. When you hear Haden -- in his soft, plaintive rawness -- singing "Shenandoah, I long to hear you," you're hearing the heartbroken sound of American nostalgia itself, an exquisitely tender moment where 19th century and 21st century meet.
This one's for those who loved the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" but with all the heart in the world replacing T-Bone Burnett's roots music scholarship.
-- Jeff Simon
The Pussycat Dolls
Gene Simmons once famously (and annoyingly) said of Kiss, "We're a rock 'n' roll brand, not a rock 'n' roll band." Well, the Bat-Lizard's got nothing on Nicole Scherzinger and her Pussycat Dolls. These ladies make the Spice Girls look like pillars of musical integrity. Of course, if you never had it, how can you lose it?
Dressed like models for a line combining S&M wear with lingerie, the band sprawls across the cover of its new "Doll Domination" atop personalized motorcycles. I have no idea what this might be meant to signify, and I suppose it doesn't really matter. Beneath the cover is a way-too-long collection (15 songs) that includes cameos from Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott, and production/songwriting credits from the likes of Rodney Jerkins, Polow Da Don and Timbaland, all thrown together in an attempt to guarantee at least a hit or two. The result is a truly awful mess of an album. It's shallow, forgettable, cynical and staunchly empty-headed.
Snoop Dogg attempts to save the breathy, redundant "Bottle Pop," but can't; Jerkins' "When I Grow Up" is a straight disco celebration of '80s materialism made worse by its contemporary imagery and production. Timbaland's sonic manipulation on "In Person" is fun and rife with references to '80s radio pop. But really, who cares? It's a song parlayed in the voice of a woman intent on beating her boyfriend senseless. In Pussycat Dolls-land, this will have to pass for "female empowerment."
R. Kelly arrives for the best tune on the album, "Out of This Club," intoning the male role as Scherzinger moans and coos about ... er, needing a lift home from the bar at closing time, I guess. It offers a brief respite from the production overkill surrounding it, but the song's still a dog, R. Kelly or no R. Kelly.
All "Harlots-R-Us" style and zero substance, "Doll Domination" isn't worth the plastic needed to manufacture it.
-- Jeff Miers
The Grateful Dead
Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978 (2 CDs/1 DVD)
Only the Grateful Dead could've pulled off three gigs in front of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids in Egypt, and timed those gigs perfectly with both a full lunar eclipse and the signing of the Camp David Accord by Anwar Sadat. And only the Dead could travel that far from home, with that much emotional, spiritual, symbolic and musical power at play, and still turn in shows that were, by their own high standards, mostly average.
There can be no question that the release, 30 years after the fact (almost to the day) of the infamous Egypt stint is an event of some significant historical heft. The Dead's shows at the Gizah Sound and Light Theater in Cairo -- quite literally at the foot of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx -- were recorded and intended for a live album, but at the time, the tapes were considered unusable, as if the Grand Jester himself got a chuckle out of the band traveling around the world to play in the cradle of civilization and coming home with no record of the experience. Time and technological advancement allowed the sands to be brushed away from this whole affair, though, and part of the second and all of the third Gizah shows have been exhumed.
Typically, in the ragged-but-right world of the Dead, drummer Billy Kreutzmann so badly injured his left wrist just before the shows that he had to play one-handed for the duration. Equipment issues, heat-related tuning problems and an unfailing ability to blow it when it mattered most plagued the Dead, and as evidenced by this gorgeously restored collection, things got off to a slow start.
"Jack Straw" from the show on the 15th of September, is pretty strong, though it doesn't exactly rival the perfect "Europe '72" version; "Row Jimmy" has a lot of the magic, but Kreutzmann's handicap is apparent in the sluggishness of the rhythm section; "New, New Minglewood Blues" is prefaced by Jerry Garcia audibly exhorting his bandmates to "Make it good!," so he knew what was going on; the version of "Good Lovin'" included on the DVD falls apart at the feet of the Sphinx, and Bob Weir can be seen and heard querying the drummers at the tune's feeble conclusion, "Can you guys hear?" It's all so charmingly GD-appropriate.
There are moments of pure transcendent genius, though, among them a torrid "Looks Like Rain," an inspired "Deal," a haunting collaboration with Cairo's Hamza El Din and the Nubian Youth Choir in "Ollin Arageed" and some pure Garcia magic during "Fire on the Mountain."
All of this, coupled with bonus footage from the group's Egyptian vacation -- watching Ken Kesey, basketball legend Bill Walton and the Dead men and entourage cavort around Cairo is simply surreal -- immaculate sound quality and some fiery performances make "Rocking the Cradle" pretty much a godsend.
The Dead certainly played better shows, but these are unique amongst the band's recorded canon. They might've fallen short of the truly sublime, but really, what other band would've even tried to pull this off?