Cuz Horses Don’t Sing

Steve Koenig

[July 2002.]

I’m a field-recordings man, and a rocker, and I also love old-timey, bluegrass, roots reggae, skronk and punk-jazz. I hate the phrase “this sucks,” yet let’s be up-front: I hate most world-beat as I hate most jazz-fusion. I hereby inaugurate a new column celebrating everything from the field to the computer, the common ground being common ground. Tierra, the Earth. Like Big Bill Broonzy is supposed to have said, “It’s all folk music, ‘cause horses don’t sing.” Big Bill to the contrary, if we do get field recordings of some talented relative of Mr Ed, you can be sure you’ll find it represented here. After all, my manifest destiny was to buy all the Sounds of Locomotives LPs that ASV put out. Perhaps I digress, but those trains took me from Surrey to Zimbabwe …

Yacub ADDY’s Odadaa!: Children of the Ancients. YAO BIS 00021 [52:47], www.rpi.edu/~addyy/ghanadrum.

From the first chanting on the first cut, “Ta Ta Tei,” until the drums come in on the last track, this is a fine disc. This Ghanaian troupe hails from the village of Avenor, west of Accra, though they’re now based in the U.S. This is rhythm, not world-beat. Traditional percussion polyrhythms of both hand and stick drums with chanting, often call-and-response. The choral sound is not as homogenized (smooth, most would say) as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and often similar in effect to Polynesian, but it is clearly African. “Fire,” using English and Ga lyrics, works well and doesn’t sound like a compromise; they bring to mind the Meters and the New Orleans “Indian” groups. I’m filing it next to Ghana: Ancient Ceremonies, Songs and Dance Music (Nonesuch).

Mason BROWN and Chipper THOMPSON: Am I Born To Die: An Appalachian Songbook. Dorian DOR-93217 [56:36], www.dorian.com.

This is a fine collection of Appalachian songs. The performers are a bit matter-of-fact. They play a variety of stringed instruments. Tonally, they recall the overlap of Simon and Garfunkel, but they don’t emote or sound beautiful. In this genre, one mustn’t over-emote, for the risk of sounding corny, but they are permitted to allow their voices to convey emotion without resorting to melodrama. All texts are in the booklet; good sound and attractive package design.

Piney BROWN and Eddie MACK: Hoot and Holler Saturday Night. Delmark DE-754 [58:51], www.delmark.com.

The title tells it all. Another fine compilation of Fifties jump music brought to us by Delmark from Chicago’s Apollo Records label, beautifully reproduced on the CD. A dozen tracks by Eddie Mack and eight by Piney Brown. Blues, jumps, a super good-time disc. Original labels, good notes.

Jerry BUTLER: The Philadelphia Sessions. Mercury 314 586 498-2 [71:02], www.universalmusic.com.

The Philadelphia Sessions is done the way reissues should be done. This single disc embraces Butler’s two Gamble-Huff productions, The Iceman Cometh and its follow-up, Ice On Ice. There are three more tracks for lagniappe. The wonderful thing about this disc is that most will buy it for Cometh, which has the hits, but discover the much stronger Ice on Ice, every cut an excellent slice of soul. Exemplary booklet: well-chosen photos not in a collage, complete sessionography and release information, original and new liner notes, and the back featuring the sheet music for “Are You Happy.”

“Only the Strong Survive” is perhaps Butler’s most famous soul hit, followed by “Hey Western Union Man,” which I think is lesser than most of the songs in this excellent compilation. Many of us learned “Never Gonna Give You Up” from Isaac Hayes; this is a charming version, and I think the first. Because these albums have the flow of albums, it’s a worthy purchase even if you already have the overlapping 1992 two-disc anthology Ice Man: The Mercury Years (314 510 968-2).

CHARLIE DANIELS BAND: The Ultimate. Epic/Legacy E2K 086456 [42:25 + 57:54], www.legacyrecordings.com.

Why did nobody tell me about these guys before? Here’s my taste in country rock: I haven’t a clue why anyone did or does like the Allman Brothers. I haven’t heard enough Lynnard Skynnard to want to hear more, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band can be brilliant or a snooze, often on the same disc. This anthology covers 1973-1996. I slapped this on out of duty rather than interest, but my ears perked up from the first track until the end of the first disc. A friend laughed at me, “You never heard ‘High Lonesome’ before? It was a big radio hit.” Well, no. They mix country with fantastic bluegrass; fiddler Daniels is very exciting and the band high spirits all the way. The opening is a paean to America and all its musics and the groups of people who embody them, “Then, Now, and Until the End.” It’s the kind of thing one might expect to have been composed for a 9 / 11 tribute, but it was written before. The second is an exceptionally intelligent and clever talking blues narrated by a Mississippi hippie, “Uneasy Rider.” “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” is a country-swing shuffle, “Trudy” a fun shuffle which has a lick just as riveting as Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman.” Fun throughout, absolutely musical, danceable and singable, and could be made nowhere but in America; craft and spirit in the service of the greater pop.

The music on Disc Two is somewhat weaker by contrast with the earlier work, basically cock-rock (either hard or balladic) and jingoism (“American Farmer”), with some honky-tonk titles. It opens with “Still In Saigon,” an interesting lyric although the opening is a lift from “Rhiannon.” The delightful “Talk To Be Fiddle” traces a fiddle from a Jewish immigrant (quoting “Hava Negila”) to a Black bluesman to a country fiddler: Daniels. There’s a cover of “Layla” that has wonderful plucking, but they should have gone all out on this. I’m sure David Bromberg would have made a showpiece out of it. “Honky Tonk Avenue” summons impressions of a southern Springsteen. The booklet shows 12 albums by the band. Charlie Daniels, welcome to the permanent shelf and your alphabetical home between Italian composer / pianist Massimiliano Damerini and the quirky Danielson Famile, covered here in earlier columns. Original orange Epic labels.

Lee FELDMAN: The Man in the Jupiter Hat. Bonafide / Mercury 1002 [44:48], www.leefeldman.com.

Someone told me to check out this singer / songwriter’s dot-com, and so I did, and here we are. Remember the fine old quirky singer / songwriters of yore like Buzzy Linhart (“Friends”– his original perhaps even better than The Divine Miss M’s over-the-top cover), Dean Friedman (“Ariel”), Biff Rose (“Fill Your Heart”) and Rupert Holmes? All erratic but with moments of brilliance, and with voices and style distinctive from each other. Feldman fits well with this company. As a disc, Jupiter Hat works wonderfully, the 12 songs having the easy flow of an LP rather than a stuffed-to-the-gills CD. Jazzers should note some of our stars here as sessioneers: cellist Erik Friedlander, fiddler Mark Feldman, horny Lenny Pickett, Tom Malone on ‘bone and bari,’ with tubist Marcus Rojas. Kudos for the cover and inside-tray photos. No texts are given, but the songs are simple in form and hook easily.

Jorge FERNANDO: Velho Fado. Times Square TSQD 9017 [38:07], www.silvascreen.com.

He has the voice of a man with the emotions of a youth, so apt in the fado, the Portuguese song of melancholy. The instrumentation is acoustic, intricate and perfect for these songs. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, some have equated it with the blues, in that they are not necessarily sad, but wistful. Piaf and other European cabaret singers also have much in common with it. The liners declare, “The songs on this album are incomplete …. Only when a listener tunes his feelings with his lost memories” is the work complete. All songs are originals, save one by Brel and one by the queen of fado, Amalia Rodrigues. I’m mighty grateful to Times Square for including the original texts and full English translations in an attractive booklet with many photos, in a cardboard slipcase. A “class” production, but of the people.

FLUORESCENT TUNNELVISION. Submergence SUB-0047 [2 CDs], www.motherwest.com/submergence.

A mixed bag, as most double-disc anthologies are, this one compiled by Hadley Kahn. Circle is a Finnish rock group with a dark proggie sound. Pseudo Buddha hails from San Antonio, and has a psychedelic sound, jams improvised. Instruments include sawblade, llama flute, Pokémon guitar, camel bells and ocarinas, speaking in tongues, and of course, electronics. Actually, it’s easier and more worth your reading time to say this double provides all manner of prog influenced by world music and rock. It’s not my taste, but surely recommendable if this description piques your interest.

THE FOUR TOPS: Fourever. Hip-O / Motown 314 556 225-0, [4 CDs, digipak longbook, 60:30 + 70:11 + 79:50 + 79:15], www.motown.com.

Okay, you soul freaks, join me in reveling: Hip-O has assembled a marvelous four-CD book of the Four Tops. The fat book contains a great selection of sheet-music covers, concert posters, buttons, and all pertinent discographic data for the U.S. and U.K., where they were major stars throughout their career. To be honest, this set is not for all. The final two discs carry the Tops’ post-Motown work on MCA and other labels, and although fans will want it for historical as well as vocal reasons, the songwriting is weak, though not all will share my opinion. Many of those Dunhill records were major pop and R’n’B chart hits. Doesn’t matter: The unreleased tracks and alternate mixes make this collection more than worth it. Most of the early hits are the singles mixes, which means mono; I believe the original album tracks are mixed to stereo. Each CD label has a meager drawing of one of the Tops; shame they didn’t use photos.

The joys of all Motown LPs have been the non-single tracks, most of which are great, and if not great, are interesting variations on the winning formula. The second disc contains many, many songs I was not familiar with, but now are hits on my own charts, such as “I’ll Turn to Stone” (here in an “original vocal” mix), “Your Love Is Wonderful,” and a hit I hadn’t heard before, their cover of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” That track redeems a song I’d always been cold to; the Tops sing it as a matter-of-fact love song, not dripping with pathos. A newly released ballad with the Temptations, “Just Another Lonely Night,” should have been, and would have sold big, likewise another ballad previously only on LP, “Do What You Gotta Do.” No cover of “MacArthur Park” can pass without comment; an execrable song, whether the original by Richard Harris or Donna Summer’s disco blowout. The Tops do the unbelievable. By underplaying the obnoxious metaphoric lyric, using a charming male chorus of “There will be another someone for me,” and despite a production using some strings, this actually makes some sense of the text by ignoring the histrionics of all previous versions. I might wind up liking this song via the Tops, but I swear I’ll never admit it.

Disc Three opens with “It’s All in the Game,” which I first learned from a Van Morrison cover, and I still just don’t like the song, but the Four Tops do an enjoyable version. This is followed by a few tracks from the Still Waters Run Deep album, which you’ll need to buy complete. Here for the first time the two versions of the title track are combined, as if they had been merely edited for single release, but they are different versions, at different tempi; merely splicing them here is jarring and foolish. I remember the chills these 45s gave me when I first bought them and they still do, although I also love the way they bookended the LP. The singles versions are far superior to this “unedited” version; the mystique fades. Glad to have it here, but gladder I still have my 45s. The production of “Ballad To” harkens to the sound world of What’s Going On in its strings / glockenspiel. I never cared for my beloved Tina Turner’s “River Deep”; this combo of the Tops and Supremes is my favorite version. It too has a big production, but here the singing is what delivers the lyric and the song as a whole.

The final disc starts out with an energetic Pointer Sisters-type early disco beat, “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison,” with its (Temptations’) Masterpiece-type string progression, and a weak lyric. The rest are also pro-forma dance-type tunes, including their 12″ version of the Yardbird’s “For Your Love.” It starts out terrible and then hits a stride with a happy-jumpy rhythm and intelligent vocals for the main lyric; oh for a remix. “Tonight I’m Gonna Love You All Over” is one of those romantic yet tacky lyrics, done live with beautiful harmonies, previously unreleased. The 12″ of the Motown medley with the Temptations is fun, but set to disco BPM, so the songs become mere excuses for applauding memories. The Tempts and Tops do some fine harmonies on “Get Ready” in this medley; still, it’s just an exercise. Another 12″, with Smokey Robinson, has a super melody and construction; “Indestructible” is simultaneously beautiful and anthemic.

Isaac FREEMAN and the BLUEBLOODS: Beautiful Stars. Lost Highway / Universal 088 710 267-2 [44:48].

Gospel with a modern feel but a traditional sound, both the slow and the mild-beat tambourine and clap songs, with a female chorus. Roots in Alabama. My advance copy gave me little info, which is fine enough, for this bass solo outing from the Fairfield Four is solid throughout, and includes “Jesus on the Mainline,” which many of us non-gospel folk learned via Ry Cooder. “Lord I Want You to Help Me” has a New Orleans-style rhythm one could associate with ‘fessor Longhair. Many have brief, spoken introductions that are moving. You already know if this is your kind of thing; it’s excellent of its kind: It’s got the spirit, reined in but powerful. A 24-year-old visiting asked me if that were Isaac Hayes playing. Coulda been.

THE ISLEY BROTHERS: Harvest for the World. Epic Legacy EK 85314 [42:25], www.legacyrecordings.com.

You can hear in the 1976 release the beginnings of what the kids now call R’n’B, with the light vocals floating over each other over a subtle, tasteful rhythm track, but this disc is clearly 1970s pop. Rock, wah-wah funk, all flavors. This isn’t as strong as the previous year’s thoroughly excellent, unified The Heat Is On (see my full review in JazzWeekly.com) but the ingredients are still tasty: the trademark Isley vocals, Ernie’s always-brilliant electric guitar — he’s one of the often-overlooked stars of rock guitar. It’s only that the songs aren’t as strong, save the title track’s “Prelude,” and the beautiful ballad “Let Me Down Easy,” which could have been covered by the Stylistics or Dionne W. Harvest is a collection covering all the bases that are the Isley Brothers: A dance funk, a love ballad, etc., but each one is informed by their social consciousness. The bonus track is a surprisingly effective, extended cover of Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” to my taste much better than the original. The weird thing about this nine-minute track is that it’s described as “live,” but at Bearsville Studios. The audience applause is clearly overdubbed, worse than some James Brown fake “live” production, but the track is still a winner. Get Heat without question, then this one if you’re a fan.

The Best of Gladys KNIGHT and the PIPS. Columbia Legacy CK 85695 [73:47], www.legacyrecordings.com.

Poor Gladys Knight. Blessed with one of the all-time great, immediately identifiable voices in rhythm and blues, she’s been saddled in the last two decades with inferior material both on Columbia and MCA, yet, despite that, some songs have crept through to become hits and underground dance records. This collection in Legacy’s Rhythm & Soul series showcases Miss Gladys as she surfs the ever-varying rhythms of R’n’B, from soul to proto-disco to disco to synth-ballad. Many of the songs are generic Seventies soul, but oh that voice. The ones culled from the About Love and Touch albums were written and produced by Ashford and Simpson. Songs like “Taste of Bitter Love” make excellent dance records; here clocking at 4:37, I wonder if Columbia ever issued an extended mix. I’d forgotten the excellent, up-tempo “I Will Fight” from 1981. Also included is 1983’s “Hero,” passionate and without saccharine; it’s better known in Bette Midler’s execrable version as the now-standard “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The disc ends with a 10-minute, seven-song medley of pre-Motown, Motown and Buddah-era songs from the Live at the Roxy album recorded in 1980, with a funky band and strings. Although each tune is too fast and too short, it’s fun. The urgent “clip” of “If You Were My Woman” is a grand tease. Quality liner notes by Carol Cooper plus clear session notes for each track.

Gertrude LAWRENCE: Gertie: Star of Screen, Musical and Revue, 1927-1936. Naxos Nostalgia 8.120560 [65:17], www.naxos.com.

Gertie has a head voice that clearly enunciates these lyrics by the Gershwins, Ivor Novello, Coward, Porter, Adinsell (I didn’t know he wrote anything other than the Warsaw Concerto) and others of her time. One listens for the stories of the songs, many of which have spoken introductions. Also included are the dialogues with Coward from his plays, which you might already have in the Angel four-CD boxed set of Coward’s HMV discs. Those EMI transfers are similar to these. There is minimal hiss in Peter Dempsey’s clear Naxos transfers. Very enjoyable for the 10-dollar list.

The LEGENDARY PINK DOTS: Chemical Playground Volume 11 “Excess,” Volume 12 “Where The Hell????,” Volume 13 “I Can See Clearly Now (I Think).” Caciocavallo CAD3 [3 boxed CDs, 71:43 + 55:49 + 62:54], www.soleilmoon.com.

They have indeed been around a long time, yet this is my first delighted (over?)dose of the Dots. Psychedelic, surely. Ambient? Do you know the Beatles’ “Flying”? Electronic? How do you feel about mellotrons, and the end of the Stones’ “5,000 Light Years from Home”? Rock? As much as Pink Floyd, but the Dots are aware their lyrics can be silly. Fey? Not so much as the Virgin Prunes or Bowie. Folky? Tyrannosaurus Rex or the Incredible String Band. Songs? Sort of, but they’re in suites that blend seamlessly, like Caroliner Rainbow. Heck, the three discs are a unit, and not just because of the box. What about Volumes 1-10? I told you, this is my first encounter. Hippie-folkie stuff for the new millennium. ‘Scuse me while I lick the sky. “You’ve been creeping through my laundry far, far too long. You don’t scare me any more.”

Ray LEMA and TYOUR GNAOUA: Safi. Tinder 88092 [42:52], www.tinderrecords.com.

Originally from Sudan, here is a sweetly flowing rhythm like Nigerian Fela’s, but without his sharp edges. Some of the tunes are traditional, and some of the rhythms are modified bubbling reggae, so much a part of popular music worldwide. The male chorus is clearly African, and Tyour Gnaoua now live in southern Morocco. Ray Lema plays guitar and keyboards. This doesn’t sound at all like the traditional Gnaoua music you might know from Ocora or Playasound discs, although it is licensed from Buda Musique, which usually offers straight field recordings. Some of the polyrhythms recall pop music from Ethiopia. No printed texts.

Bob MARLEY and the WAILERS: Catch A Fire: Deluxe Edition. Tuff Gong / Island 314 548 635-2 [44:21 + 57:33], www.islanddefjam.com.

I am a slow warmer to Marley. Rhythmically and emotionally, I prefer Toots and the Maytals. Politically, give me Linton Kwesi Johnson (if any reader has a copy of LKJ’s poetry-only disc, please drop a line), Burning Spear or Israel Vibration. There’s a reason for this. I would take no more delight in a pop song about Jah and / or the holy sacrament of ganja than I would in one about Catholic communion; it’s neither naughty (as reefer was for so many of Marley’s earliest white acolytes, especially the Catch a Fire cover with Marley defiantly smoking a spliff) nor relevant to my life.

Marley was very clear about what he wanted to accomplish musically and professionally, and enlisted Island Records founder Chris Blackwell to help him rockify his sound to get a worldwide audience. It worked, as we all know. Mixed with the great political songs “Concrete Jungle,” “No More Trouble,” “Slave Driver” and “400 Years” are love and sex songs like “Stir It Up,” “Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby)”, and “Kinky Reggae” which leave me cold, but I am in the minority here. Some of Marley’s political beliefs raise the eyebrows of the nonbelievers, as in “Midnight Ravers,” with the chorus: “You can’t tell the women from the men / because they’re dressed in the same pollution.” It continues with an apocalyptic vision that finds the confused narrator co-opted by the nightlife, which I find offensive; nonetheless, it is one of the strongest tracks musically, vocally and lyrically, with its pun of “keep a riding / right [ride] on” these riderless apocalyptic horses.

The significant thing about this deluxe edition is that it contains “the unreleased original Jamaican versions” on Disc One, and the sweetened album originally released as Island ILPS 9241 as Disc Two. If I had heard the Jamaican version back in 1973, the sparer, harder and clearer sound would have convinced me Marley was a force to contend with. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the dub-heavy sounds of I-Roy and King Tubby until a few years ago, when I listened through the four-disc Tuff Gong Marley anthology, only to discover that some of my favorite “anonymous” reggae songs, taped from the radio, were indeed by Marley, especially “Sun Is Shining” and “Natural Mystic,” plus from Catch A Fire, “Slave Driver” and “400 Years.”

As in the others I’ve encountered in the Deluxe Edition, the two discs are in a four-fold digipak with a plastic sleeve, and a fat booklet with excellent notes and photos. The only thing more collectors would want is reproductions of the original labels. Complete texts and clear, intelligent liner notes. Also recommended, and taking the music way farther out than Chris Blackwell did, are Sun Is Shining: The Remixes on Tuff Gong/Palm CD single PPCD 7023, and the astoundingly high-quality anthology Chant Down Babylon listed under Marley’s name, utilizing the original tracks but mixed and messed around with by folks like Lauryn Hill, Chuck D, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu (Tuff Gong 314 546 404-2).

Bob MARLEY and the WAILERS: Trenchtown Days: Birth Of A Legend. Epic/Legacy EK 63588 [57:33], www.legacyrecordings.com.

This 20-cut compilation will appeal equally to collectors of obscure R’n’B and stone(d) Marley freaks. “Trusting Her” is a treat for those like me who like the hybrid of R’n’B ragged harmonies with garage-band guitar and Farfeesy organ. The well-known “One Love” is a ska, and the rest add up to 20 fun tracks of ska and rock steady. This is not one of those budget early Marley discs pirated everywhere, usually titled The Best of Bob Marley. This one has been spinning since its arrival.

Harold MELVIN and the BLUE NOTES featuring Teddy Pendergrass: The Ultimate Blue Notes. Epic Legacy EK 85231 [76:41], www.legacyrecordings.com.

Part of the Rhythm & Soul series, this excellent compendium opens with four of the most important songs of the Seventies: “Wake Up Everybody,” “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” which won a deejay poll of the best-ever disco records, and the gorgeous ballad “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” I assume everyone knows these, and they’re here full-length and in the best sonics I’ve heard yet for these tracks. This is followed by “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which had disco partisans fighting over who did it better, Melvin or Thelma Houston, the way a decade earlier we fought about “Light My Fire.” (I still give the laurels to José Feliciano, and to Thelma Houston.) For me the treat is having these five together with 10 more tracks I never knew: I was a 12″ buyer and never really heard the albums except at other people’s parties. Many are formulaic, but with all tracks written either by Gamble / Huff or McFadden / Whitehead / Carstarpherson, nothing is bad. Notable are two eight-minute tracks by Gamble / Huff, “Yesterday I Had the Blues” and the cautionary rap (no, silly, not hip-hop) “Be For Real,” which hasn’t dated a minute. The MFSB groove takes us out dancing on the last three fine tracks, “Where Are All My Friends” (which I suspect would have been a huge club hit except for the title), “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” and “Tell The World How I Feel About ‘Cha Baby.”

…på alle strengjer: Traditional Folk Songs from Norway. Laerdal Musikkproduksjon LMP 101 [42:25], www.qualiton.com.

A superb folk disc featuring Ragnhild Furholt, who uncannily recalls Sandy Denny. Anyone into the British folk scene would want this, as well as collectors of joiks. I’ve been listening to a lot of traditional Norwegian music these months, having scooped up a bunch from a distributor who was dumping them cheap. This ensemble follows the tradition, but it’s not a hermetic one; anyone can enjoy this easily. Helene Waage and Leiv Solberg sing harmony on some tracks, as well as play acoustic guitar, bass, baroque cello, Hardanger fiddle and mandolin in simple, moving accompaniments. Only one thing to cry about here: the lack of English texts, although full Norse texts are inside the booklet. The hubs of the digipak, an odious invention, were all broken. Luckily, the slot for the booklet also holds the disc. I’m not sure what the title means or if it’s the name of the group, so I’m filing it under Norway.

RENAISSONICS: Renaissance Dances and Improvisations. Titanic TI-232 [62:15], www.titanicrecords.com.

A jaunty group; none of that tired museum flute and harpsy stuff they usually foist off. Nor are they as clunky as some of the British folk-movement bands like Steeleye Span can be. For me, though, the happy middle is groups like the Albion Dance Band and Brass Monkey. The Renaissonics do very well, though, if this is your genre.

Boyd RICE: The Way I Feel Today. Caciocavallo CAD 4 [53:35], www.soleilmoon.com.

Circus music, lounge music, stretched-out Christian chant, and a grab bag of weirdness, with an astounding ear for our palette of pop styles. This fits easily in the Caciocavallo family of discs; quirky, with origins deep in pop but refracted through a warped mirror. The cover jacket could easily be mistaken for a reissue of an obscure Sixties folksinger. The first track is in the same spirit as the “Theme from ‘Get Smart’” and the B-52’s. The second offers a driving tiki-lounge rhythm, great distorted sax obbligati, and words spoken against hate. The songs flow together album-style, combining Sixties psychedelic git and sitars with left-of-center spoken social commentary. At the same time, it’s more than a one-trick pony. As you pass the openers, you encounter tongue in cheek, a self-mocking lyric over ESP-era Pearls Before Swine-type hazy guitars: “Did you ever wanna kill all the slow people in the world? Some people try not to think about life’s ugliness. I’ve thought about it quite a lot. Something should be done to make them suffer.” “Assume the Position” uses ambient / noise backgrounds over harsh words, but these texts, I believe, are filtered through the same kind of sensibility that Randy Newman uses in “Drop the Big One” and “Short People.”

Only inside the booklet do I see that Rice is known for “rather brutish and insensitive noise music,” or that the opening track is indeed called “Theme from Pearls Before Swine.” On further hearings I hear Rice’s voice (deliberately?) phrasing like Pearls’ Tom Rapp, with the echo of the early discs. It’s clinched by the duet with a female waif. “A Hymn to Him” is a hysterical parody of Henry Higgins’ “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” but with the additional brilliance of using a horn to overlay the rhythm of Anthony Newley’s “I Wanna Be Rich,” plus the title is the same one used in Bye Bye Birdie for the ode to Ed Sullivan. Next comes a parody of “Quiet Village” called “Quiet Village Idiot” with the frog-like chorus intoning the theme from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” This is the type of thing MAD Magazine did on their 1960s albums on RCA. The Way I Feel is a total blast. Guests include David Tibet and Coil.

Brenda RUSSELL: Paris Rain. Hidden Beach / Epic EK 62138 [42:25], www.hiddenbeach.com.

Brenda Russell’s latest album is a gem, with finely polished, romantic songwriting. Ms Russell is often overlooked because she isn’t easily pigeonholed. She comes from the pop, rather than R’n’B, school. Though the mood of some of these songs recalls late-Seventies Carôle King or Laura Nyro, her voice is subtler in texture, and more easily controlled than theirs. At times I hear flashes of the vocal texture of the young Dionne Warwick, without Warwick’s quirky peaks. Russell writes her own tunes. They have a positive but not preachy outlook. A sign of the strength in her work here is the collaboration with Brazilian super songwriter Ivan Lins, “Please Felipe.” It’s a samba complete with chorus, adopts the style with facility and without pretension, yet fits seamlessly with the rest of the album. Gosh, I just noticed “Move the Moon” was co-written with Carôle King.

Some of Russell’s releases from a decade ago were lovely, but the arrangements generic buppie soul. Here her styles mesh perfectly, making you feel as if you’ve known this album for years. If some of your cherished LPs include Margie Joseph’s Feeling My Way, Michael Frank’s Tiger in the Rain, and Carôle King’s Thoroughbred, this is indispensable. You can play it, without fear, for friends into Quiet Storm, real jazz, or even whatever constitutes Top Ten these days. I will never get used to the sound of electric keyboards used in soul ballads for the last 15 years, but here it is unobtrusive. This CD comes from the same small, tasty Hidden Beach label that has a totally different but equally strong winner in genre-straddling rap poet balladeer Jill S. Scott, whose disc I heard in a store and couldn’t leave ‘til it was over and then I bought it.

The SAMPLES: Here and Everywhere Else. What Are Records? WAR? 60031-2 [44:09], www.war.com.

An interesting group; power pop, I guess, with a bleating singer who often reminds me of the Police, tempered by the quirk of Bare Naked Ladies. For my taste, BNL have a bunch of great songs on their first two CDs with production values stronger than a lot of the material, which is immature (read: for kids only). The Samples also, for my taste, open with two excellent tracks: “We All Move On” and “Anymore.” The title cut is interesting, if only for the (accidental?) musical and brief text allusion to “Strawberry Fields.” I like the production: simple, tasty effects. Only the songs themselves aren’t strong enough for a full album, but that’s me. This only recently came my way, with five albums already under their belts, and I’m sure several newer ones. If you like power pop or wimp pop, sample this. The multimedia content is excellent: some studio clips, interviews with each member, and texts of all songs with chord changes.

SANCUARI: Sleangácuoivvat. Norway Music / DAT DATCD033 [59:56], www.qualiton.com.

Another Norwegian group doing traditional joiks, here electrified with minor synths, electric guitar, vocoder and (!) didgeridoo; an equivalent to Steeleye Span. Dances which sound, alternately, Native American or Irish. Ultimately, this should appeal to those who like Alan Stivell and other very pretty Celtic-type music.

Simon SHAHEEN: Turath: Masterworks of the Middle East 03. Times Square TSQD 9025 [59:21], www.silvascreen.com.

This production by Bill Laswell, who actually kept his musical hands off, is a pleasant instrumental Turkish-music excursion originally released on CMP. Shaheen is an important force in keeping Arabic music alive in the U.S., often in tandem with Western musicians, but his own music has always struck me as a mite careful. This might be authentic, but I could use more motor.

Ravi SHANKAR: Farewell Performance: Carnegie Hall, November 18, 2001. www.carnegiehall.org.

Pandit Ravi Shankar is one of music’s great communicators and educators. I learned about Indian music through his World Pacific LPs, and then, thanks to George Harrison, from The Concert for Bangla Desh, both disc and film. Annually, he performs a birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. Last year I wanted to go and got in a typical New York concert dilemma: There were so many things happening that night, which should I choose? That year I decided on an unknown performer rather than a known quantity. It turned out to be a big mistake. One takes chances. This year I was not to miss out on Shankar, especially when I learned this was to be his farewell Carnegie performance, with daughter Anoushka Shankar opening the set. I had been told so beforehand, and was concerned she might be on the pop side of things. She is a fine sitar player, and it was a moving first set. After intermission Ravi came out, and played another set. No slight to his daughter, but it was clear how age and experience enriched Ravi’s music. Although I have heard Indian music concerts that have moved me more, especially those of vocalist Sheila Dhar (she has an excellent Ocora disc that is still far from representative of her powers), this was a grand occasion for a grand man and I consider myself blessed to have been there.

Mercedes SOSA. Carnegie Hall, March 13, 2002. www.carnegiehall.org.

Another legend at Carnegie, the Argentine grand dame of the folkloristas put on a fine show. The backing instruments were folk-pop, but her voice and presence were strong. She spoke only in Spanish, and there was much give-and-take with the audience. Her voice was more stable than it has been on many discs.

Billy Bob THORNTON: Private Radio. Lost Highway / Universal 088 170 236-2 [52:50], www.losthighway.com.

All too often, celebrity is the only reason celebrities make discs. Not so here. A fine storyteller in the country and folk-balladeer genre, Thornton is a master and a natural singer as well. No excuses need be made except, why hasn’t he been making records all along? His deep voice is perfect for the parts of pieces that are purely narrative, such as the erotic love talk on “Forever”: “I was thinking about you / when the law pulled me over … / but I don’t think he’s ever seen a man wearin’ pink panties / and under the influence of Merle Haggard.” The covers of “He Was a Friend of Mine” and “Lost Highway” are not carbons of the originals. These do use Nashville steel pedal and fiddle at times, but there is no sweetening of the genre. The originals are at least as good as the covers; “Dark and Mad” is about a one-night stand, and the guitar / organ interplay underlines the mood subtly yet ferociously. Anyone would enjoy this, but fans of Lyle Lovett especially, as well as of Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Springsteen and Richard Thompson, should go nuts over it.

J. P. TORRES and his CUBAN ALL STARS: Cuba Swings. Pimienta / Universal 176 160 501-2 [42:25].

Usually I’d pass on a disc I don’t care for, but given the recent resurgence of interest in Cuban music, I find it necessary to advise that despite the press packet’s touting of the leader’s trombone, he just lets things slide. He is no Don Drummond, roots reggae hero. This disc takes standards by Gershwin, Ellington and friends, and turns them into Miami elevator music. Sad; imagine the possibilities “Rhapsody in Blue” holds for a version with a Latin slant. The spines say only Cuba Swings.

Peter TOSH: Live and Dangerous: Boston 1976. Columbia Legacy CK 85478 [75:30], www.legacyrecordings.com.

Fans will want this first release of Tosh’s performance at the Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA. There’s an excellent, long riff-tune by the Sly and Robbie riddim until Tosh appears on stage to sing “Let Jah Be Praised” and the mighty song “400 Years.” Unfortunately, the riddim is on, but Tosh pretty much sleepwalks the entire concert. There’s a long “Stepping Razor” which has no edge. Frustrating.

Sandra WEIGLE: Gypsy Killer. Knitting Factory KFW 315 [38:43], www.knittingfactory.com.

Weigle was born in Bucharest and raised in East Berlin, where she was jailed and claims that the Gypsy music she learned there kept her alive. She “followed the gypsy trail to New York” where she met Anthony Coleman. That led to this disc where the cream of downtown jazzbos (too many to name, but if Ribot, Pugliese, Fowlkes, Darriau, Krauss, Glen Velez and accordionist Ted Reichmann are familiar names, you’ll have a good idea) aids her with excellent, intricate musical support. Her voice is somewhat Slavic in tone, and German in intonation. Lots of near-Sprechstimme with yawping punctuation. No texts, just brief notes on each song.

Jackie WILSON: 20 Greatest Hits. Brunswick BRC 33010 [55:43], www.brunswickrecords.com.

My first encounter with Wilson’s name was via a reference in Van Morrison’s “I’m in Heaven When You Smile,” with a lyric in tribute: “Jackie Wilson said it was ‘Reet Petite.’” Strangely, though I usually follow up on such things, Wilson’s oeuvre has escaped me these decades until recently I encountered Brunswick’s Live at the Copa, which I found painful to listen to because of Wilson’s straining performance. This packet of 20 gives me a much better idea of what the fuss is about. Wilson’s voice isn’t an especially attractive instrument, yet he knows what to do with it. I hadn’t realized he was the one who did “Lonely Teardrops.” What a sense of pacing, timing Wilson had, with a strong, high tenor voice that goes into falsetto rarely, only when appropriate for punctuation. Other tunes, such as “Night,” find Wilson with an irritating tremolo suitable for bad operetta. Many of the tracks are not “pure soul,” but rather enjoy those strings and choruses so prevalent in the pop / soul music of the late Fifties, Sarah Vaughan as well as Wilson. The liner notes begin by calling him an “entertainer,” which is appropriate and no slur. In this transfer by Ivan Joseph Goldberg, each instrument comes through clearly and punchy. Check the organ in “That’s Why (I Love You So).” One hears no tape hiss, yet there’s no sense of congestion or loss of highs. Fans will appreciate this well-paced compilation, and it’s a fine overview for newbies like me.