Friday, October 24, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 3)?

I think I speak for many record store employees when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys that are miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. But I can promise you, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here's a snapshot of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

John Lee Hooker Travelin’
I know that John Lee Hooker stomping, singing and playing guitar by himself is the archetypal version of JLH, but I have to admit that I love it when he deigns to have a bass and drums (and sometimes another guitar) with him, as was often the case on the early 60’s Vee-Jay albums he did. Even though they don’t exactly add anything to the music – they follow his lead at all times and are, as such, more ornamental than fundamental in the music – I still love the way a cymbal ringing along with him sounds, the way a snare sounding off on the two and four sounds. Also delightful for me is the way each of these songs fades out with John Lee usually still singing, as though each track is but a snatch out of a continuum of rhythms over which he plays the ultimate raconteur, telling his stories now with his voice, now with his guitar; the fade kicks in and we skip ahead to the next chapter in his stories of love and loss on the road. He’s made more dynamic songs, sure, but as a full album, very few from his catalog are of a piece the way this great one is.

Das EFXDead Serious
Though you may get a little tiggidy-tired of their shtick by track 10, you gotta admit that it’s a hell of a gimmick and tough to do, too – more an intricate and (for me at least) largely entertaining circus act than an empty set of smoke and mirrors or some sleight-of-hand parlor trick. And maybe it never again hits the highs that “Mic Checka” (track 1) and “They Want EFX” (track 3) do, but it never loses momentum, never loses the all-important sense of humor they’d be lost without. It starts strong, goes all out for humor, hooks and gross out (humorously delivered, of course) for the first half, then takes it easier for side two – or maybe I just get a little tiggidy-tired by track 10 myself. But persevere – track 10 itself is great, so try not to wear down before it’s over. It was only good enough to (sorta) take as the title of their follow-up. Besides, the rest of that second half is pretty damn good in its own right, it’s just in the wake of the first half that it doesn’t quite dazzle.

Wayne ShorterThe Soothsayer
Like Et Cetera, this album sat in the can for over a decade and in listening it’s tough to understand exactly why – must’ve fit somebody’s marketing plan of the day. Even so – 1980 is a little long to have waited for these spring ’65 sessions. But blah blah blah, spilt milk and all that – I guess by the high standards Shorter had set with his incredible string of 1960’s Blue Note albums, this is a lesser session that could wait for release, rather than being shot out hot on the heels of the masterpiece Speak No Evil. The song “Angola” is spectacular – a fast one in which Shorter, James Spaulding, and Tony Williams simply blow the roof off (I mean, Wayne does in typically oblique Shorter-esque fashion, of course). “Lady Day” is a lovely ballad which Bob Blumenthal’s notes for this edition call “a haunting ballad in the vein of ‘Infant Eyes’” to which I’d add “only not quite as haunting, because it’s less melancholy, if no less beautiful.” The waltzes that begin and end the regular album are pretty great too; one a Shorter original that drives home one of Blumenthal’s other points about the record (I’ll get to that); the other a lovely arrangement of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste.” Bluementhal’s notes point out that (Freddie) Hubbard, Spaulding and (McCoy) Tyner, all first-class players, may not be intimidated by the challenges of the music, but none of them are able to play out the implications (of the compositions) as fully as Shorter himself.” And that’s what I alluded to earlier – while everyone here is able to approach Shorter’s unusual writing and solo on his tunes with gusto, he’s the only one who sounds fully at home with the compositions – well, in the soloing at least. Maybe it’s just that his approach to soloing is as idiosyncratic as his writing, but that’s the way it sounds. Everyone in this terrific group sounds great here – Wayne Shorter just sounds better.

Sonic YouthEvol
This is Sonic Youth right on the cusp of their breakthrough – Steve Shelley’s in place, nearly every track gives up something like a hook (or at least a really memorable bit) – and if it managed to rise up just a little bit more, if the best bits peaked just a touch higher, it’d be major and not just “good.” As it is, the singles – “Star Power” and “Expressway to Yr Skull” – kill, their best moments on record to this point of their career. Not too far behind are “Tom Violence” and the odd little “In the Kingdom #19.” The rest sounds good, but the feel just one push short of really making it. A shame that not all turntables respond to the lock groove that closes things – having that comforting electric drone flesh out the final 11 minutes or so of the Evol side of a Sonic Youth C-90 was a very nice thing. CD version also includes bonus material – “Bubblegum” is a great cover I’ve never heard the original of. Glad they chose it for this. I just take my mental rating down a half notch because they could’ve replicated that lock groove on CD if they really wanted to. I’m not sentimental about “original vinyl” stuff, but that’s one gimmick I really liked.

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