Take This Hammer
* * **
No genuine music-loving home in America should be without this disc. It's from an exceptional series collecting the gems from the RCA vaults under the unfortunate title "When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll." Not only is there something unspeakably trashy about interpreting a whole world of American roots music as just a prelude to rock 'n' roll, the way they're interpreting it is so liberal that almost anything could fit, up to and including George Washington's second inaugural address.
Even so, these cornerstone 1940 recordings absolutely fill the bill. The "Midnight Special" by Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter became a rock era hit for Johnny Rivers, the "Rock Island Line" turned into a hit for Lonnie Johnson a decade earlier and begat skiffle music, which, in turn, helped beget the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals and Van Morrison. And none of that matters a whit when you hear the overwhelming power of Leadbelly and his 12-string. Astonishingly, the music collected on this disc has never been available on disc in one place before, which makes its issue this way a tiny bit of history, too. (Two of its cuts, "Yellow Gal" and "Julianna Johnson" have never been available before.)
He'd done his share of prison time, and much of this came from a kind of early blues concept album "The Midnight Special and other Prison Songs," conceived by the indispensable Alan Lomax. The sound of Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Singers is what inspired the music on the hit soundtrack of "O Brother Where Art Thou?" And the propulsive force of Leadbelly's 12-string on "I'm on My Last Go Round" would leave anyone awestruck.
If you've never heard one of the primal figures in American music before, the great way to do it has finally arrived.
-- Jeff Simon
The Old Kit Bag
* * * *
Unfailingly, Richard Thompson's albums arrive as if from another planet, one where music's roots run deep into the soil, where they've grown slowly and steadily for hundreds of years. There's something imminently timeless about Thompson's songcraft, something transcendent about the way he sings and plays guitar, something stately about the manner in which he makes records.
"The Old Kit Bag" is another record in this tradition, for it, like so many Thompson recordings, arrives like a welcome wind to separate the wheat from the chaff. "Gethesmane," the album's opener, puts all the Thompson ducks in a row. There's the brilliant, literate lyrics, the eloquent voice, the harmonic structure that never fails to suggest an innate connection between Celtic folk, sea shanties and the electric blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. "Jealous Words" reminds us that Thompson can bite when cornered; here, his guitar is a viscous dog on a leash, barking at passers-by who venture too close. Thompson, as is his wont, keeps the dog on a tight leash, but he's clearly proud to be its owner.
"A Love You Can't Survive" is a gorgeous ballad recalling Fairport Convention, the folk ensemble Thompson helped to elevate above all of its late '60s-early '70s peers. This is the sort of folk music that will forever avoid being parodied by the likes of Christopher Guest.
The phrase "the real deal" might have been coined with an artist such as Thompson in mind. No matter what else might be going on in the world of popular music, his work always seems to carve its own niche, and is worth whatever time the listener might be able to devote to it. Exemplary on every level.
-- Jeff Miers
The man behind some of the best records of the past several decades -- U2's "Joshua Tree," "Unforgetable Fire" and "Achtung Baby"; Dylan's "Oh Mercy" and "Time Out of Mind"; Peter Gabriel's "So" and "Us"; Emmylou Harris' "Wrecking Ball" and many more -- also happens to be one hell of a singer and songwriter. It's no surprise that Lanois knows how to make records; what may be surprising to some is how damn good his own records are.
"Shine" is Lanois' third album proper, following "Acadie" and "For the Beauty of Wynona," both of which Lanois released over a 10-year period between production gigs. It's an absolute stunner, from beginning to end. "Wynona," which came out in 1995, proved that Lanois could have been on the other side of the mixing desk all along and still been worthy of the "genius" title. "Shine" reaffirms that notion. It's stark, haunting, beautifully and lushly produced, boasts Lanois' best singing to date, and makes plain the fact that part of the majesty of the records listed above should surely be credited to Lanois.
Standouts? Well, the one-two punch that opens the album -- "I Love You," a darkly beautiful paean with guest harmonies courtesy of Harris, and "Falling at Your Feet," co-written and sung in duet with Paul Hewson, known to the world as Bono -- launches the listener face first into Lanois' candle-lighted world. The rest of the album -- elegiac, dense, always deeply musical and full of yearning -- keeps you there. Few will likely buy this record, and that's a shame. But those that do will be richly rewarded.
-- Jeff Miers
* ***< Whatever discomfort may be inspired by Wynton Marsalis as an adminstrator , neo-conservative musical theoretician and composer, no one can question his formidable chops and expressive authority as a player. That's why any disc where you can catch him in the act of just being a sideman is worth its weight in gold. That's what Marsalis does on four tunes here, while his trumpet offpsring Marcus Printup is on four others.
The disc belongs to Ted Nash, a 43-year-old saxophonist from a jazz family (his father was staff tombronist at Cbs: his uncle was amongother things, a saxophonist for Merv Griffin's TV band) and it's a beauty all the way through- a tough and funky jaunt through the current Manhattan jazz mainstream in great company (including the ubiquitous and exceptional drummer Matt Wilson.) The tunes are all Nash's nicely seasoned and marinated in angular blues. So in Nash's playing, and when, on "The Competitor," Nash and Printup do some expressionist neo-New Orleans Jousting, this fiercely cool music heats up to a wild and furious boil. Jeff Simon
John Hiatt and the Goners
Beneath this gruff exterior
* ** 1/2
Finally, John Hiatt gives us the album that is the authentic follow-up to 1995's "Perfectly Good Guitar," the album with which the stellar songwriter was finally matched by an equally inspired band.
It's not that Hiatt's work in the interim has been anything other than strong -- the man hasn't released a bad album in the more than 20 years he's been making them -- but Hiatt has always sounded best when he's being pushed by a hot band and in particular, a hot guitar player. He had one in the form of Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward on "Perfectly Good Guitar," and he's got one now in the guise of Loner six-stringer Sonny Landreth, whose brilliant fretwork fuels the exuberant "Beneath This Gruff Exterior" at every turn.
Hiatt sounds like he's having the time of his life as he burns through up-tempo corkers including "Uncommon Connection" and "How Bad's the Coffee," his acoustic guitar's militant strum and his slightly nasal, eminently tuneful snarl engaging in a call-and-response with Landreth's lucid slide work and slippery phrasing. There are beautiful ballads, too, something Hiatt has always excelled at. "The Nagging Dark" bristles with the self-deprecating wit and nimbleness of phrase we've come to expect of Hiatt; "My Dog and Me" is folk-country with tongue planted firmly in cheek; "Missing Pieces" echoes "Darkness on the Edge of Town" Springsteen.
It's all good, all worthwhile, all worthy of Hiatt's reputation as a first-rate American singer-songwriter.
-- Jeff Miers