Only Solitaire: G. Starostin's Record Reviews, Reloaded
Beyond this page the reader will find a bunch of superficial reviews of pop music records, spanning the chronological distance of about a century's worth of recording and of the tastes and judgements of one individual. If there is a primary purpose to all this writing, it can be described as inescapable egotistic self-assertion over one's record collection, something that each and every individual with a record collection, a computer, and an ability to string together a few coherent lines of text is entitled to as long as «freedom of speech» has any meaning.
Each review tends to consist of a small bundle of facts about the recording (for larger bundles of facts, please refer to specialized literature on the artist), a self-honest attempt to describe the music in accessible and meaningful terms, and a few subjective, but systematic, opinions on the overall value of the record. No «ratings» are given — rating the value of any record on a numeric scale is fun, but not necessarily harmless fun — except for an overall «thumbs up» or «thumbs down» decision, triggered by considerations of direct, irrational likeability (the «heart» reaction) or by more rational ideas of «artistic importance», «relevance», and «innovation» (the «brain» reaction). A record may be liked, but not respected, or vice versa. However, it does not necessarily need to be both liked and respected to get the thumbs in an upward position.
Reviews are separated in seven chronological categories — artists of the pre-Beatles era covering everything (mostly blues, R&B, and rockabilly) from the 1920s, then six more sections covering relatively distinct chronological periods. Within these, artists are slowly reviewed in alphabetic order. At the current rate, I may never get beyond the letter C, but I do not really care. This is not science, and getting anywhere is not the main purpose.
Potential readers are encouraged to browse through these texts, and, perhaps, even to follow certain recommendations (if they have not yet heard the record in question), provided they have at least a few points of intersection with the opinions offered below. If, on the other hand, it turns out that we come from different planets, there is no reason whatsoever for you, dear reader, to waste your time on what you will unquestionably label as «drivel». There may be other, better reviews waiting for you out there, or, perhaps, you would like to follow your own uninfluenced destiny in this matter. By all means, then, I welcome you to do just that.
Contra my past experience with the HTML version of Only Solitaire, I do not add any more reader comments to my reviews. However, I welcome additional or dissenting opinions on the forum, and I promise to correct any factual, grammatical, or stylistical mistakes and/or typos that you spot (fairly easy to do when it is all in a single file).
Last note: for fun and additional entertainment value, some of the songs in the track list preceding the review are hyperlinked to Youtube videos — but only in cases where there really is an accompanying video clip or live performance that I think is worth one's love (or hate), not when it's just an audio track over a bunch of boring photos. Enjoy — or don't enjoy.
The «Two Cents» Page.
For those who have no need of lengthy reviews, here's just one or two quick thoughts and summaries on all the artists I have covered. Do not forget, though, that even Britney Spears cannot be fully described in two sentences, so these should by no means be taken for final and definitive judgements. Build or burn at your own risk.
Note: ☺ Smileys indicate artists well worth getting acquainted with; ○ blank circles are for okay ones who may have reasons to own fan bases but do not rise beyond "decent"; ☻ anti-smileys are just what they are — artists who are only here because of public notoriety and (perhaps) limited historical significance, but they can also be great fodder to make fun of. I'm sure they don't mind — they're supposed to be cool, understanding people in any case.
☺Albert King: On a good day, this could be my favourite of all the «big fat electric blues gurus». The man had a long, fluctuating, career, but one that is actually worth following for at least one whole decade, unlike that of so many blues purists; in the mid-1970s Fate ceased to mate him with good supporting musicians, but for a whole ten years before that, he was the blues spirit of Stax Records, providing a unique synthesis of the Chicago style with classic R'n'B that, as strange as it may sound, nobody else at the time was willing, or able, to replicate. Plus, he really was one of Eric Clapton's most respected teachers circa the Cream period — it is a downright injustice to love Disraeli Gears and ignore this guy. Possible starting point: Born Under A Bad Sign (1967).
○ Alberta Hunter: Lady Gracious of 1920s vaudeville-blues and also the most spectacular late comeback in blues history. A bit too refined to relate to on a personal level, but well worth worshipping on a universal one. Possible starting point: Any decent compilation that cleans the sound up well enough, or, for the comeback period, Amtrak Blues (1980).
☺Amos Milburn: One of the three or four kings of the «jump blues» craze of the late 1940s / early 1950s, nicely distinguished from the others by his tremendous piano playing — a forefather of the rock'n'roll form and one of the first purveyors of the rock'n'roll spirit ('Down The Road Apiece' certainly rocks the house down). Possible starting point: Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie-Woogie is an excellent 3-CD set that covers most of the important points, but it's out of print; in its absence, any reasonable compilation will do (even the short ones usually have all the classics, but you gotta make sure that these are the original 1940s/1950s recordings).
○ Arthur Crudup: One of the first electric bluesmen and, in a way, the progenitor of Elvis ('That's All Right, Mama'; 'My Baby Left Me') — unfortunately, he only performed (I cannot even say «wrote») two songs in his lifetime, the Slow Blues one and the Fast Proto-Rockabilly one, and once you have tasted the two, there is little reason to taste a hundred more exactly like them. All around nice dude, though. Very clean. Possible starting point: Any compilation that has the songs mentioned above. Go for the original versions, not re-recordings — this guy is mostly treasurable as a part of history, and why would you want to own fake history?
☺B. B. King: Having reigned as active King of the blues-de-luxe style for more than half a century — grand, flaring brass, piano, and strings arrangements have been going hand-in-hand with the man's singing and playing ever since the late 1940s — B. B. leaves us with such a huge legacy that it is almost impossible to make recommendations. Possible starting points: Live At The Regal (1965) is frequently considered a landmark in live electric blues performance; Completely Well (1969) may be King at the peak of his studio powers. Generally, though, a B. B. King album is as good as are the musicians, songwriters, and producers involved with it. And if you decide to simply stick with a best-of compilation, nobody is going to blame you, either.
○ Barbecue Bob: One of the earliest forefathers of «Piedmont Blues», whatever that means in a non-purely-geographical sense; cool voice, similar in seductive power to Blind Willie McTell (but also capable of growling), and an interesting, if notably limited, guitar playing technique in which dum-drum-dum-drum «flailing» freely alternates with slide passages. Like most of the ancient bluesmen, this one, too, is mighty repetitive, but he only recorded for about three years before kicking the bucket, making this more forgivable than in others. Possible starting point: Any compilation that has the major classics — 'Mississippi Heavy Water Blues', 'Motherless Child', and that ultimate Depression anthem, 'We Sure Got Hard Times'.
☺Bessie Smith: The Empress. Perhaps not the most versatile, nuanced, diverse, or seductive urban blues performer of the 1920s, but assuredly the most «titanic» of them all, and the one who was the least afraid to pour pure gut feeling into the material, no matter how old-fashioned or generic. Also, probably, the easiest blues queen of the decade to get into — not least because most of her records have been cleaned up and remastered so well by Columbia. Possible starting point: Any single compilation will do, as long as the early years are covered.
○ Big Bill Broonzy: The overall nice gentleman of ye olde country blues that afforded himself a solid place in history through three things: (a) recording like crazy over three decades of a generally very monotonous career; (b) being one of the first American bluesmen to heavily tour overseas in the 1950s, thus procuring front row seats in the hearts of blues-thirsty European audiences; (c) overall nice gentlemanship and all. Hugely overrated, but still good enough for half a CD worth of solid guitar technique and occasionally adequate songwriting.
☺Big Joe Turner: A figure of tremendous historical importance and a potential source of kick-ass entertainment even today, but proceed with care: the Big Joe formula is as drastically limited as all of pop music's pre-1960's formulae. The bare necessities of life include finding a decent compilation of Joe's 1930s/1940s material, when he and his piano pal Pete Johnson ruled over jump blues and boogie-woogie; and then, of course, a compilation of his 1950s Atlantic hits, when, almost coincidentally, an already aging Big Joe became one of the co-founders of rock'n'roll. In-depth analysis of Turner's career should be left to pros and nuts.
○ Big Joe Williams: The direct ancestor to the much better known Muddy Waters — burly, smelly, scary blues music directly from the Delta. Big Joe's distnctive features involve a slightly special type of sound produced by his unique nine-string guitar; authorship or, at least, appropriation of such classics as 'Highway 51' and 'Baby Please Don't Go'; and particular recording longevity — throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the most successfully and prolongedly marketed guardians of classic Delta blues.
☺Big Mama Thornton: One of blues' and R&B's greatest leading ladies — who, unfortunately, had the unluck to be Texas-based for most of her career, and ended up getting far fewer chances to prove her greatness than many of the more prominent figures of her age. As it is, she is mostly known for having recorded the original 'Hound Dog' and also providing fellow Texan Janis Joplin with one of her biggest hits ('Ball And Chain') — but there are plenty of other burly, brawny, incendiary gems in her catalog, and, although her «golden age» in terms of 45s were the 1950s, she managed to keep a respectable artistic profile until at least the mid-1970s.
☺Bill Haley: The father of 'Rock Around The Clock' does not need to strive for immortality: cheap (or expensive) compilations of the Comets' couple dozen major successes from the mid- to late-Fifties are always available, and they faithfully represent the cream of his rock'n'roll legacy. Beyond that, fans might explore his slow rise to fame through a career in country-western and early white R'n'B, or his quick fall from fame through a career as the Twist King of Mexico, but, honestly, there is no pressing need. It is important, however, to hear as much from his Decca period as possible — not just the hits, but the mini-«concept» albums as well.
☺Billie Holiday: The most idiosyncratic and deeply personal jazz singer of the pre-rock'n'roll era; while I normally refrain from reviewing jazz artists, her influence on all spheres of popular music, including pop, folk, soft-rock, etc., has been tremendous – having written only a handful of original compositions in her lifetime, she is still the fairy godmother of a huge number of female (and some male) singer-songwriters. What Bessie Smith started, she brought to completion — a shift from «mannered» singing, in which emotionality was veiled with conventional theatrical moves and tactics, to a style where the singer is no longer afraid to show the singer's own personality. Surely the only person who could almost make even a song like ʽCheek To Cheekʼ come to life (well, not quite, but she tried) deserves a page of her own.
☺Blind Blake: Either Georgia's, or Virginia's, or Florida's pride and glory (seems to be more different states vying for the right to his birthplace than Greek cities for Homer's). The father of «ragtime guitar», one of the first genuine, «provable» (through his recordings) virtuosos of the instrument, and, seemingly, an overall nice guy, despite loads of personal problems, typical of early pre-War bluesmen. Unfortunately, most of his recordings were done for Paramount in pre-Depression times, which means awful sound quality. Still, there are some compilations out there that try to do their best cleaning up the sound — so it might be better to hunt for these 1-CD best-of recordings rather than the complete 4-CD Document series, especially since these also include a lot of filler (much of the slow blues pieces that B.B. played were fairly generic).
○ Blind Boy Fuller: One of the most prolific, commercially successful, and predictably forgotten ragtime / Piedmont blues players of the pre-war era. The man had it all: a nice singing voice, a steady, unerring, professional playing technique, close-to-ideal studio conditions, and a profitable recording contract. The problem is, he only played about ten to twelve songs throughout his career, each one of which was re-recorded about the same number of times (sometimes even without changing the lyrics, just the title). Still, everybody needs to at least hear ʽRag Mama Ragʼ and ʽLog Cabin Bluesʼ — classics of the genre. And the man that gave a title to the best Rolling Stones live album cannot be altogether forgettable.
☺Blind Lemon Jefferson: Nobody played guitar in the 1920s like this guy, and few people, until Hendrix came along thirty-five years later, allowed their instrument that much freedom, especially when working from within a form as initially restricted as the blues. One of the few completely indispensable acoustic-blues artists for any aspiring musician, and particularly recommendable for «generic blues» haters as a possible remedy for the anti-blues attitude. But keep in mind that his work is rather uneven; it is advisable to concentrate on the early material from 1926-27 (ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ and the classic ʽMatch Box Bluesʼ, in particular, are undying classics).
☺Blind Willie Johnson: This guy only recorded about an hour and a half total of music during his brief late 1920s / early 1930s career, but what an hour and a half. Rough, dark, scary gospel-blues, sung by Captain Beefheart's grandfather and Tom Waits' great-grandfather and played with unparalleled slide guitar technique. Hugely influential on the entire blues and roots-rock scene, but still in a class of his own — essential listening for the ages.
☺Blind Willie McTell: With his cheery, youthful tenor and energetic style of 12-string guitar playing, Blind Willie McTell was one of the most «optimistic-sounding» bluesmen of the pre-war era, and he never lost that taste for life even after his recording sessions virtually ground to a halt. That is not quite the impression one gets from Bob Dylan's take on the man (McTell was a huge spiritual influence on Bob, but in a strictly Bob-controlled environment), but it might be even better, because loud, lively 12-string country blues was never the commonest commodity.
○ Bo Carter: This country bump... er, gentleman cut an immense number of sides in the 1930s, despite never having had more than a simply competent country-blues singing style and a professional, but never all that individualistic manner of string-picking. The main reason for his success were his lyrics, which pushed the sexual innuendo level of generic 12-bar blues to an absolute, some might say almost surreal peak — honestly, AC/DC at their dirtiest have nothing on this guy, and the «give-the-people-what-they-want» public slurped and salivated accordingly. Collecting all his works has been easy ever since they have all been assembled in the Document series, but it is also the textbook definition of overkill: the regular listener only needs, at most, a representative single-disc compilation (actually, five or six songs in total will do the trick — make sure ʽPlease Warm My Wienerʼ is one of the selections).
☺Bo Diddley: No rock'n'roll collection will ever be complete or representative without a solid collection of Bo's early singles — the tribal «Bo Diddley beat» alone is one of the foundation stones of rock music, but Bo actually pioneered much more than that, and did it all with such verve that those early singles still sound totally fresh today (especially with a good remastering job). His innovative streak, like that of most «early rockers», was quite brief — already by the early Sixties, he was mostly coming up with re-combinations of previous successes — but the same cannot be said of the energy level of his performances, which never sagged one bit even in the direst of times. And he did make a brief exciting comeback in the early Seventies, reinventing himself as a heavy funkster at a time when most of his contemporaries were quite content with the status of «generic oldies act».
☺Bobby "Blue" Bland: Despite his not-particularly-attractive family name, Bobby has stuck far more often in the «True Blue» rather than the «Bland» department throughout his career. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he managed to stay aloof, resonant, competent, and commercially successful (on a modest level) for three decades — giving a good name to soul-blues in the 1950s, 1960s, and even the 1970s, when his style and production became predictably glossier, but still retained that classy spark. His major weakness is over-productivity: even as late as the 1990s, he was still steadily releasing a new LP every two years or so, most of which were and still are surprisingly listenable, but not altogether necessary. But a good, comprehensive overview of his Duke Records years (1950s-1960s) belongs in everybody's collection.
☺Brenda Lee: «Little Miss Dynamite» started out in the mid-Fifties as one of only two ladies who could successfully compete with the emerging male rockers on their territory (the other one being Wanda Jackson) — some of her early singles energized the listener with near-genuine Elvis-type energy, rendered all the more fascinating when you realized she had developed that energy while still in her early teens. Unfortunately, in a matter of several years, the initial punch had dissipated, and she was soon marketed by her Nashville supervisors as a fluffy, run-of-the-mill balladeer and uninventive second-rate interpreter of «golden oldies and silver youngies»; with but a tiny handful of exceptions, nothing beyond 1961's All The Way is really recommendable, and the best way to get to know Brenda is through a compilation that focuses on her Fifties' material.
○ Brownie McGhee: The most, actually, that could be said about Brownie McGhee is that he was a cool, easy-going black dude who professionally played some very nice acoustic blues in many different styles (mainly Delta and Piedmont, though) — for the most part, though, he made his name by simply outlasting everybody else and managing to maintain a public profile in the 1950s and the 1960s, when most of his «authentic» pre-war contemporaries had already gone down the drain. Brownie is simply Brownie — he does not have much of an individual style, but he is never less than listenable, and often more than charming. Thus, any of his recordings, be it the early 1940s singles, the numerous 1950s duets with Sonny Terry on harmonica, or the later, more fully arranged band albums, are just about equally recommendable. But be careful, he's got a veritable boatload of them.
☺Buddy Holly: One of the few rock'n'rollers from the pre-Beatles era to go «against the grain» of the generally brutal / rebellious image associated with the movement — Buddy's image was notoriously non-flashy, «nerdy» even in comparison, but it was really his excellent gift for creative songwriting that makes him one of the most important giants of the era, and a huge influence on the entire pop scene of the Sixties and beyond. The average modern listener might not be too impressed with the original recordings, suffering as they are from mediocre production values and a general lack of flashiness in Buddy's singing or playing, but nothing can hide the man's lovable charisma, or the genius of his best melodies — too bad he didn't have at least a couple extra years to leave behind a bigger bunch. A representative collection of Buddy's singles should be part of everybody's collection, but it is probably wise to avoid all the numerous rip-offs that his manager and producer, Norman Petty, released in overdubbed versions after his demise: with just a few exceptions, they are comprised of scrapped outtakes that never sounded too good to begin with, much less when they got «spiced up» with additional instrumentation that never belonged there in the first place.
○ Buddy Moss: A legendary, but seriously underrated, country blues player from Atlanta, largely obscured by flashier competition from Blind Blake to Blind Willie McTell to Blind Boy Fuller (sort of a pattern there — perhaps if he'd been Blind Buddy Moss, things would have turned out differently). Unlike all those guys, Buddy was not much of an «entertainer», playing only a minimum of dance-oriented ragtime blues stuff; his specialty was the rigid 12-bar form, which he enlivened and enlightened with a marvelously fluent, inventive style of rhythm and lead playing. However, such an approach made his unique personality much harder to discern, and he never had that entrancing, mystical, «demonic» aura that later made white boys so attracted to the likes of Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton. In addition, he seems to have been relatively humble and shy — and then there was this weird accident of his being jailed for murdering his wife in 1935, something that seems to have never been properly proven, yet it cut his career short at the time and he never recovered. Most of his stuff sounds «the same», but still, every blues fan should at least own a representative compilation with ʽOh Lawdy Mamaʼ on it.
☺Bukka White: One of the most revered country blues players of the 1930s, the man actually only made a small handful of extremely influential recordings in that decade. It is hard to claim that he had an instantly recognizable / completely distinct identity, being influenced by just about everybody from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Blind Willie Johnson to Charley Patton, but it might just be that versatility, and general ability to impose his own rough, slightly bear-like, but lovable personality on all these styles, that makes his classic recordings (ʽPo' Boyʼ, ʽShake 'Em On Downʼ, ʽSic 'Em Dogs Onʼ, etc.) into such a treat. Like many other survivors, he made a comeback in the 1960s, but most of his late-period recordings are either faithful recreations of the old stuff or somewhat misguided attempts to step into the shoes of the new generation of Chicago bluesmen — it is recommendable to simply stick to the old pre-war stuff, particularly since all of it fits in quite niftily on a single-CD compilation.
☺13th Floor Elevators: Coming out of Texas, no less, these guys were the original lords of hardcore psychedelia, fanatically understood as a musical/lyrical philosophy of genuine soul liberation, rather than merely a bunch of trippy circus sonic effects. This allowed the band to succesfully blow the minds of everyone who was not afraid of them (and, in 1966-67, such people were still rather scarce in numbers) — over the course of a whole two albums. Then, predictably, bandleader Roky Erickson blew his own mind, and the band ground to a halt by the end of the 1960s, leaving behind a confused, but still exciting legacy (although Roky himself still managed to have a hit-and-miss solo career for the next forty years). Possible starting point: The Psychedelic Sounds Of... (1966).
☺Action, The: Their way of combining R'n'B with Brit-pop was original and nice; too bad they never even had a chance to record a proper album. Possible starting point: The Ultimate Action collects in one package most of their reasons for existence.
☺Alan Price: Outside of the UK, this man is arguably known mostly for his role in The Animals — his organ playing on ʽThe House Of The Rising Sunʼ has always been his primary (if not only) visit card. However, upon leaving The Animals over creative disagreements with Eric Burdon, Alan embarked on a solo career that, for a while, made him one of the most quintessentially British solo artists of his time. Beginning with somewhat unremarkable sets of R&B covers and then falling under serious Randy Newman influence, Price honed and perfected his songwriting skills to the extent of producing at least 2-3 conceptual albums of melodically pleasing and catchy, lyrically intelligent, and atmospherically moving tunes. His artistry has always been conservative (although he did embrace some funk and disco in the late 1970s), but his views on life were anything but, and his sincerity, humility, and overall sense of taste usually manage to show through even when he is running out of inspiration — actually, when he is running out of inspiration, he prefers not to record at all: the majority of his solo output is concentrated in the 1970s, after which recording output becomes more rare and generally less satisfactory. Possible starting point: O Lucky Man! (1973), the soundtrack to Lindsay Anderson's movie, is usually acknowledged as his highest points, but the two non-soundtrack LPs that follow it are quite the little masterpieces in their own right as well.
○ Albert Collins: One of the most easily recognizable electric blues players, with a tone so sharp, crisp, and crunchy that his bizarre fixation on all things cold and cool (see his album titles) becomes less and less bizarre, the more you listen to him. The down side (not uncommon for blues players, one might say) is a certain, ahem, similarity to most of his work, but even in that respect he is better than many others, dabbling in novel sonic experimentation and always displaying a strong sense of humor that could not even be quenched by terminal cancer, from which he died in 1993. Possible starting point: The Cool Sound Of Albert Collins, a compilation of his first, trail blazing singles; Ice Pickin' (1978) is, for good reason, is considered the peak of his LP period.
☺Alex Harvey: His work with The Sensational Band is Scottish glam-rock theater at its flashiest and bizarrest, but without guitarist Zal Cleminson he's like a fish out of water. Possible starting point: Framed (1972) or Next! (1973). Avoid (for the first time, at least) all of the pre-Sensational Band stuff.
☺Animals, The: Early British R'n'B (1964-65) at its finest — Eric Burdon's brawn and Alan Price's electric organ make an explosive combo. Later Animals are, however, mostly a vehicle for Burdon's ego — an acquired taste at best. Possible starting point: The Animals On Tour (1965).
☺Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul will forever remain the Queen, even though her active reign lasted only approximately 1/10th the length of her entire career. The universal consensus to which I completely subscribe is that the classic period lasted from 1967 to 1972 (maybe 1973) during her stay at Atlantic Records. Everything else is merely a footnote, or a lengthy series of historical illustrations about how bad songwriting and worse conceptions of mainstream musical evolution consistently ruined a great artist. Possible starting point: Young, Gifted And Black (1972) — Aretha at her maturest — or, for a simpler, fresher perspective, Lady Soul (1967).
☺Arthur Alexander: Mostly known for having both the Beatles ('Anna', 'Soldier Of Love') and the Stones ('You Better Move On') cover his songs, Alexander was, in effect, a seriously underrated pioneer of heartbreak country-soul, with a relatively small catalog, most of which has been a commercial failure regardless of the time period or label, but is surprisingly consistent, enjoyable, and faithful to his artistic spirit. Well worth getting to know. Possible starting point: The Greatest (1989) is the most detailed and easily available compilation on the market.
☺Association, The: Once loud and proud, now unjustly forgotten heroes of West Coast «sunshine pop» — inoffensive, sweet music that still somehow managed to be cool due to the band just as willingly embracing psychedelia and electric guitar riffage as they were willing to embrace barbershop quartet values. Some fine singles ('Along Comes Mary', etc.) are their primary claim to non-oblivion, but their best albums tend to grow on you, too. Possible starting point: Insight Out (1967).
○ Barbarians, The: Minor garage «wonder» from Massachusets, whose main claim to fame was their hook-armed drummer and his novelty signature tune, 'Moulty'. Their lonely LP (Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl, 1966) is no better and no worse than the average garage album — three or four fun, inspired tunes drowned in a sea of pointless filler. We will never even know if they really had potential or if they hadn't.
☺Beach Boys, The: One of the greatest American bands of the century, the Beach Boys never had the luck of the Beatles — their personal growth from melodically impeccable, but «spiritually lightweight» entertainment to some of the greatest musical innovators of their generation (mostly courtesy of gifted brother Brian Wilson) has somehow eluded the general mainstream public, and continues to be generally confined to the «musically oriented» sphere of people. This is partially due to unpleasant American marketing strategies, and partially to the tension within the band itself (where the «Mike Love Fraction» had always remained content with being viewed as «The Fun Fun Fun band» rather than «The Heroes And Villains Band»), but, fortunately, all stereotypes can be easily overcome with the most minor of efforts — just follow these recommendations: Possible starting point: Pet Sounds (1966) — if you are new to the Beach Boys, it is best to start with their artistic peak before risking to fall victim to the stereotypes. «Fun Fun Fun» people will probably prefer All Summer Long (1964) or Today! (1965), whereas those who are looking for challenges should investigate Friends (1968); and the recently issued SMiLe Sessions (2011) are an obligatory musical lesson history for everyone who is willing to take such lessons.
☺Beatles, The: Four insignificant hoodlums from one of Britain's most God-forsaken locations who somehow managed to dupe a large part of the world into considering them the most important musical phenomenon of the XXth century. In all honesty, I can only hope that you avoid the fate of all the brainless sheep zombified by industry bosses and PR agents, including yours truly. But if you, too, are prepared to lay your brain on the altar... possible starting point: Please Please Me (1963) and onwards from there, not missing one beat. Must avoid: Most of the compilations, except for those that contain non-LP and archival material. Those brainless sheep who only know their Beatles through ʽYesterdayʼ and ʽHey Judeʼ are on the really low end of the food chain.
○ Beau Brummels, The: Although this bunch of cute San Franciscan folkies is mostly remembered for ʽLaugh, Laughʼ, a classic early folk-pop single included on the Nuggets compilation, for a very brief period, they were one of the major hopes of the US folk-pop scene, before being completely eclipsed by the more daring and adventurous Byrds. Still, they made it as far as the psychedelic era (1967) and even the post-psychedelic era (1968), with a bunch of nice, if relatively feeble, albums — and, today, remain a subtle hidden delicacy for the «true connoisseur». Possible starting point: Introducing The Beau Brummels (1965) has all the classic and semi-classic early hits; Triangle (1967) is sometimes hailed as a lost masterpiece, but is less typical of the band's «regular» sound.
○ Billy Fury: Great Britain's pride and joy for a brief period of about one or two years — in the pre-Beatles era, this guy was the most commercially successful and «authentic» of all the young British admirers of the rock'n'roll sounds coming from overseas. Billy could do a mean Elvis impersonation, wrote his own songs, highly derivative of rockabilly and R&B but with a hint at originality nevertheless, and struck a cool pose with the babes. Unfortunately, his decision to tie his own fate to that of American rock'n'roll inevitably ensured that he «burned out», that is, switched to soft pop and balladry, even before the Beatles came along and put the last nail in the coffin. These days, Billy Fury is little more than a historical relic, but a sympathetic one if you attempt to concentrate on his rockabilly stuff. Possible starting point: The Sound Of Fury (1960) is his only LP that is really worth having — everything else of merit can be easily gotten through a compilation (or not gotten at all, big deal).
○ Billy Preston: Most people only know Billy through his short-term association with the Beatles, and it is hard to blame them — even if the guy actually had a long and prolific solo career where the Beatles were only a transient ingredient. Starting out as an organ instrumentalist, advancing into gospel and gospel-pop, proceeding from there into the realm of fun 'n' fluffy dance-pop, Billy never wrote or played anything genuinely «great» — his chief weapon is charisma, which makes it very hard to criticize him, because how can one say anything explicitly bad about such a charming person? All of his output up to the 1980s, when generic adult contemporary and soulless electro-pop got the better of him, is perfectly listenable, and still works as fun, positive-vibration-loaded background muzak. Possible starting point: That's The Way God Planned It (1969), his first vocal album, has one of his biggest hits, cool guest star contributions, and is actually available on CD as part of the old Apple catalog — start from there and go in both directions if you feel a bit peckish for more.
☺Birds, The: Not to be confused with their far luckier Y-shaped American competitors, this is just a very short-lived, garage-oriented early British R&B outfit, most notable for introducing Ron Wood to the world — the 17-year old guitar-playing, song-writing (but, fortunately, not yet singing) prodigy. In their brief lifetime, they only managed a small bunch of singles, all of which would be quite worthwhile for fans of the Invasion — and now they have all been niftily collected on a single, well-packaged compilation (The Collectors' Guide To Rare British Birds).
○ Blues Incorporated: An early London-based «revolving doors» blues/jazz/R&B outfit whose chief claim to fame was in launching the early careers of at least 50% of everyone who ever mattered on the British blues/jazz/R&B scene, from Mick Jagger to Jimmy Page. Bandleader Alexis Korner had a good taste in music and a good eye for talented people — unfortunately, he did not have a tremendous amount of talent himself, and few, if any, of B.I.'s original records offer anything other than historical interest. Possible starting point: R&B From The Marquee (1962) is arguably the first serious R&B LP to have been recorded and released on British shores, but At The Cavern (1964) gives an overall better impression of Blues Incorporated at their wildest live (which was never all that wild, granted). (Almost) never awful and (almost) always competent, but (almost) completely losing out to the less purist and more aggressive competition of the time, from the Animals to the Yardbirds.
○ Blues Magoos: One of those strictly B-level psycho/garage outfits — captured in their prime and glory on Nuggets with two classic singles, ʽ(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yetʼ and ʽTobacco Roadʼ, but quite spotty, inconsistent, and derivative otherwise. Of specific interest is the fact that there were really two completely different stages of this band — the original psychedelic incarnation, led by Bronx-based Emil Thielhelm (a.k.a. «Peppy Castro») and Ralph Scala, and the late-1960s incarnation, with Peppy as the only original member leading the band in an entirely new direction, based on jazz-rock and R&B rather than pop. This latter incarnation, despite never having had anything resembling a good singer, almost came close to working out an exciting sound, before also falling apart due to lack of commercial success — but their two albums may be worth checking out of sheer curiosity. Possible starting point: Psychedelic Lollipop (1966) has all the great songs, but even that one has plenty of filler.
○ Blues Project, The: Today, this band is mostly remembered for two things: (a) giving a proper start to Al Kooper's long and illustrious career in show biz; (b) ʽFlute Thingʼ, an accidentally brilliant piece of «psycho-roots» fusion that rightfully counts among the finest instrumentals of the mid-1960s. As for the rest of it — the intentions and aspirations of The Blues Project were as noble and intelligent as those of your average team of five Jewish kids from Brooklyn, but somehow they just didn't happen to have the proper means of carrying out their idea of blues / jazz / folk / psychedelia synthesis, certainly not in the era of Cream and Hendrix. Detailed acquaintance with their career should probably be reserved for the historically inclined. Possible starting point: Projections (1966) has approximately 99% of their best stuff, and is the only album that does (after a while) belong in everybody's collection.
☺Bob Dylan: This guy deserves no special introduction, other than simply stating the obvious — his is the single greatest mind in the history of «pop culture» in the second half of the 20th century, and if you do not agree, you stand no chance of a successful mind-meld with the owner of Only Solitaire. If you happen to be a newcomer to the world of His Bobness, there is no way you could do with a single point of entry. A decent starting selection would be The Freewheelin' (1963) for the early acoustic period, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) for the early electric period, and Blood On The Tracks (1975) for the «torturedly introspective» period of the mid-1970s; follow it up with the subtler, a bit less accessible pleasures of Blonde On Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1967), Desire (1976), and the startling late-period comeback of Time Out Of Mind (1997); no fewer than these six albums would be enough for a fair initial assessment, and if you still remain unconverted, too bad.
○ Bobby Fuller: Best known for his rendition of The Crickets' ʽI Fought The Lawʼ, which he turned into a major hit that was later expropriated by The Clash, Bobby Fuller was not really as much of a «rebel» (which the song might falsely suggest) as a nice American lad who liked Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, and (trans-Atlantically) The Beatles, and innocently wanted to be a little bit of each as late as 1965-66, even after Dylan had gone electric and shit. Other than ʽI Fought The Lawʼ, he had a small bunch of nice — thoroughly derivative, but well-hooked — pop singles, and could perhaps have gone on to bigger things if not for his mysterious death in mid-1966 at the age of 24, which also contributed to his «legend». A footnote, really, but worth a quick retro-glance. Possible starting point: Since his band, The Bobby Fuller Four, only had one-and-a-half proper LPs out, and both freely mixed mini-gems with mini-turds, any compilation that has ʽI Fought The Lawʼ, ʽAnother Sad And Lonely Nightʼ, and ʽLet Her Danceʼ on it will probably suffice for a representative introduction.
☺Booker T & The MGs: Perhaps Booker T. Jones and his pals will generally be remembered as the greatest backing band in the classic age of R&B — but that does not mean that their own career should be negligible, or mercilessly reduced to ʽGreen Onionsʼ (one of the most influential simplistic-genius grooves of the Sixties) and maybe ʽHip Hug-Herʼ. Expectedly, a lot of their instrumentals was just filler — novel and/or forgettable covers of contemporary and older hits — yet every once in a while they came out with interesting, thoughtful compositions, or at least bold, arrogant moves (like covering Abbey Road in its entirety). Additionally, how likely are you to become convinced that Booker T. & The MG's were indeed the finest R&B combo of their era if they are always obscured by some lead singer? It is only on their solo records that you can easily and leisurely appreciate the holy goodness created by the interplay of these four little giants of simple, but tasteful Afro-American (actually, mixed) entertainment — a goodness they managed to carry all the way into the early Seventies, before fading away right when smooth funk and disco began ruining the lives of R&B veterans. Possible starting point: Well, ʽGreen Onionsʼ is on Green Onions, so it sort of makes sense to start at the very start — and then see if you really only need a good compilation from these guys (the most common and sensible choice) or if your taste for R&B runs towards the subtle and minuscule.
☺Brenda Holloway: A one-hit wonder from Motown, chiefly remembered for ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ, that actually deserves much more — deeply talented as a singer and modestly as a songwriter, she resisted being groomed, schooled, and pigeonholed to such an extent that the majority of recordings she made for Motown in the 1960s remained shelved for decades, and came to light only recently, re-establishing her as a top star of the era. To be sure, there's a lot of filler, but she had her own brand of grace, elegance, and subtlety that very few of Motown's female superstars could top. Although her typical pigeonholed image is that of weepy torch ballad singer, she could do upbeat R&B, loud soul, and even a little jazz — as rarely as she was offered a chance to do so. Anyway, now that the vaults have been opened, any lover of classic Motown owns it to himself to have a copy of 2005's Motown Anthology, which includes both of the albums she recorded for the label (one released and one shelved) as well as lots of fun rarities.
☺Brian Wilson [← Beach Boys]: Brian Wilson's solo career began at a relatively late date — although his dominance in The Beach Boys came to a crash in mid-1967, it was not until the late Eighties that he was able to begin to cope with his psychological and physiological problems, and that, among other things, meant launching a solo career where he could finally express his artistic muse without having to bow down to commercial pressure or come to terms with Mike Love. By all means, that solo career has been miles above anything that «The Beach Boys» put out since the late 1970s, and yet, buyer/listener beware: even though Brian's songwriting genius had never truly left him, and even if his naïve idealism can still be endearing in an «old man child» way, he still tends to depend on his collaborators — songwriters and producers who know their way around the man but who do not have the tenth part of his genius and often do not understand how he should be handled. As a result, Brian's solo output is very hit and miss: unfortunately, great songs tend to be mixed with filler and embarrassments on almost every album, so there's just no way around it. Possible starting point: the eponymous Brian Wilson (1988), despite lame late Eighties production, is still arguably the closest he ever got to recapturing the «teen symphony» spirit of Pet Sounds and Smile. After that, it's all up to you.
☺Buddy Guy: One of the longest and toughest survivors of the classic Chicago school of electric blues, although, curiously, his true rise to fame only took place in the 1990s, when, after a rather sketchy four decades of a hit-and-miss solo career mostly spent in the shadow of other guitar greats, he unexpectedly emerged as the principal flag-bearer for the Old Blues Guard. Frankly speaking, Buddy is really not that great — for all his undeniable prowess with the axe, he was never much of a songwriter, and his singing and showmanship were always too derivative of others (be it Muddy, James Brown, or Hendrix) to deserve anything more than casual respect. Additionally, his disproportionally huge post-1990 discography constantly fluctuates between flashes of energized inspiration and generic commercialized blandness — and he spends way too much time cultivating his «blues patriarch» image. For all those flaws, he can be a tremendous axeman, one of the few who really succeeded in reflecting Hendrix's influence and bringing it back home to Chicago; and everybody needs at least a little Buddy in the collection (though it is quite telling of people if you see their «blues shelf» stocked with Buddy Guy and nothing else). Possible starting point: You might skip the early stuff and head directly to Sweet Tea (2001), one of the man's most inspired and sonically unusual records from the revival period; from there on, it's your bet, but be prepared for lots of inconsistency.
☺Buffalo Springfield: This band lasted way too little, and was arguably more important for launching the careers of Stephen Stills and Neil Young than for building up a significant amount of autonomous legacy — even its best preserved classics, like ʽFor What It's Worthʼ and ʽI Am A Childʼ, are rather associated with individual members of the band than with a collective spirit. Nevertheless, the three short records that they left behind are stuffed with excellent songwriting and performing — they really did take «folk-rock», allegedly invented by the Byrds, to a whole new level, much emphasizing the «rock» aspect because of Stills' and Young's love of the distorted electric guitar sound, and you can almost watch them mature as songwriters in real time from the first to the second and third albums. Possible starting point: Since they only had three albums, why should one choose a starting point in the first place? Well, if you insist, the first two records are the obvious choices, but do not underestimate Last Time Around (1968) either — even as a contractual obligation, the album is still highly consistent and entertaining.
☺Butterfield Blues Band, The: One of America's first and best white boy blues-rock bands, led by the Chicago-bred harp wiz Paul Butterfield and featuring Mike Bloomfield, arguably the first American electric guitar hero to emerge in the wake of the British invasion. The band began with a huge promise, playing an exciting mix of rocking covers and inventive originals; unfortunately, Bloomfield quit very early on, and from 1967 onwards, the band had been steadily deteriorating, drifting into genericity and rather flaccid jazz-rock. Possible starting point: East-West (1966) is the acclaimed masterpiece, and it does feature the combined talents of Butterfield and Bloomfield applied to a variety of genres — their most serious and exciting attempt to get out of the restricted blues-rock mold and get into something bigger. The eponymous debut album, though less original, kicks some serious ass, too — but be wary about everything they recorded after Bloomfield's departure.
☺Byrds, The: While The Byrds have never been my favorite American band from the Sixties — I suppose they have always had too strict a limit on pop hooks for my taste, and not quite enough sense of humor for the time — they would certainly be in my Top Five, and should probably be in anybody's, as befits a band that pretty much invented the «folk rock» formula (being the first to bring Dylan to mass audiences outside Greenwich Village), worked at the crossroads of pop, folk, country, jazz, and psychedelia, sheltered at least three or four quality songwriters, and produced supersongs as diverse as ʻEight Miles Highʼ and ʻTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ. Even their deeply troubled history of personal relations, with lineup changes occurring between almost every single record, was somehow in keeping with their endless need for change, progress, and self-improvement, and even their blunders could be as fascinating as their achievements. So even if you fail to fall in love with the band (and they can sound a little bland and dated in the modern era), the very journey through their catalog is practically guaranteed to be one intriguing ride. Possible starting point: With a band like this, I'd definitely recommend starting from the very beginning, with Mr. Tambourine Man (1965), even if it may not necessarily be their most consistent set of songs; my personal preference lies with Fourth Dimension (1966), but you'll get there soon enough anyway if you just follow the chronostream.
☺Affinity: Very minor British art-rock band from 1969-70 that only managed to put out one self-titled album in its lifetime and record enough stuff for another to be released archivally a quarter century later. Nothing particularly unique — just pleasant, solid art-rock with two of the most underused, if not exactly underrated, lady talents in British music of that era (Linda Hoyle and Vivienne McAuliffe, consequently). Possible starting point: Affinity (1970).
☺Al Green: The most consistent, not to mention sexiest, dude in 1970s soul, before he switched from working part time for the Lord to a 24-hour-a-day job; he's never really recovered. To fall in love with him would be predictable and corny; to ignore him — criminal. Possible starting point: I'm Still In Love With You (1972).
☺Al Kooper: The man who is, at best, known as the organ player behind 'Like A Rolling Stone' and the founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears, has actually had a much more intelligent, soulful, and diverse solo career than that of quite a few of his much better known Sixties peers — impeded only by intentionally staying out of the limelight and avoiding serious publicity. Possible starting point: I Stand Alone (1968) and then proceed from there — the man never made a truly bad record, and just about everything in his 1968-73 run of LPs is brilliant.
☺Al Stewart: Frequently mistaken for a one-hit wonder (1976's 'Year Of The Cat'), Al has, in fact, had one of the longest, most consistent, and most intelligent careers in British folk-rock, going for simple, steady hooks and simple, understandable lyrics (many of which directly relate to various historical topics) that never annoy or distract. If he doesn't blow your mind, he may still have a good chance at stealing your heart. Possible starting point: Past, Present & Future (1973).
☺Alice Cooper: The undisputed master of titillating cheap thrills, but much more witty and musically talented than those who are only familiar with the image will tell you. Possible starting point: Killer (1971) for Alice Cooper the more musically-oriented band, Welcome To My Nightmare (1975) for Alice Cooper the more show-oriented solo artist.
☺Allman Brothers Band, The: The one and only band that suffices to save the reputation of «Southern Rock» — or maybe not, because at their best, the Allmans always transcended the clichéd franework of SR (unlike, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd). The only band to have, during various stages of their history, hosted four of the greatest guitar players of all time (not even the Yardbirds could boast that much), not to mention grouping and regrouping and pulling it all together five times in history, each of them a success (in 1969, 1973, 1979, 1990, and 2003 respectively) — a legend that has no equals, which you gotta admit even if you hate blues-rock, country-rock, and long psychedelic jams with a vengeance. Possible starting point: At Fillmore East (1971) — the Bros. reputation primarily rests upon their live shows. My personal studio favorite is Brothers And Sisters (1973), but it is also easily the most directly «Southern» album they ever made, and post-dates the Duane Allman era, so buyer beware.
○ Amboy Dukes, The: These guys started out around the Summer of Love as a curious, if not tremendously exciting, mix of Detroit garage rock and typically American psychedelia. Then Steve Farmer left, taking most of the American psychedelia with him, and eventually, after a few transitional-experimental period pieces, the Dukes simply became the backing band for the early stages of America's enfant terrible, Ted Nugent. Possible starting point: Journey To The Center Of The Mind (1968) is the obvious bet for classic early Dukes, but if you are more interested in the wild heart of Uncle Ted, Call Of The Wild (1973) is inexpendable for the jaded hard rocker.
☻Amon Düül: This loosely connected «commune» of several bohemian-artistic souls in Southern Germany is mainly credited with serving as the launchpad of their far more musically gifted and inventive younger brethren, Amon Düül II, and for a good reason: most of their own musical output revolves around one mastodontic jam session in 1969, curious for a peep at its ritualistic atmosphere, but for little else. One brief listen to Psychedelic Underground (1969) should suffice for anyone.
☺Amon Düül II: The luckier offshoot of the original Amon Düül, these guys invented a direction of «Krautrock» that was perhaps the closest in sound to «progressive rock» tendencies of the early 1970s, but still exclusively their own – a wild, elegantly brutal jungle-rock sound, dense and atmospheric to the point of literally, rather than formally, blowing your mind away. Possible starting point: Yeti (1970), then proceeding all the way to 1975's Made In Germany (with a much lighter, poppier, song-based rather than jam-based sound, but still exceptional).
○ Amon Düül (UK): This is another split-off, this time from Amon Düül II, led by that band's former guitarist Jon Weinzierl. Relocating to England, they released four albums in the 1980s under the name of «Amon Düül»; these days, to avoid confusion, they are always mentioned with the «UK» suffix. First two records are quite recommendable for art-rock and art-pop lovers; last two, recorded as a collaboration with Hawkwind's poetic guru Bob Calvert, are skippable. Possible starting point: Hawk Meets Penguin (1982).
☺Andrew Lloyd Webber: Starting out as a (perhaps accidental, but nobody realized it at the time) grand musical hero of the rock generation, with what is, in my opinion, unquestionably the most stunning «rock opera» ever written by mortal man, Sir Andrew rather quickly evolved into a generic fluff writer for the stage; but even at his fluffiest and most derivative, his talent for wiring himself into the listener's brain rarely left him, and most of his musicals still rise quite highly above the average «generic Broadway show». Possible starting point: Either the original cast version (1970) or the movie soundtrack version (1973) of Jesus Christ Superstar, depending on personal preferences — essential listening for every Homo sapiens on the planet.
☺Aphrodite's Child: Before Vangelis Papathanassiou firmly embraced the world of electronics as his best chance to leave an artistic mark on humanity, he spent three years as the creative backbone of a young, idealistic, heavily bearded Greek art-pop band — which, believe it or not, also jump-started the career of Demis Roussos, «The Singing Kaftan» and subsequent bane of East European pop. Together, they made music that was occasionally corny, sometimes unintentionally derivative and hilarious, but still much, much better than one would prematurely guess. Melodic, memorable, and at the same time daring and experimental: these guys only managed to have three albums out in their lifetime, but all are well worth getting to know. Possible starting point: 666 (1972) is their most well-known concept album about you-know-what, but the other two, more immediately accessible and single-oriented, are no slouches either.
☺Argent: Rod Argent's switch from the idealistic baroque-pop of the Zombies to no less idealistic «symphonic rock» of the early 1970s has, for the most part, been ignored by contemporaries and subsequent generations alike — mostly because he never succeeded in carving out a unique identity on that particular stage, so that even the best stuff of Argent always comes across as a «second-hand» project. On the other hand, the songwriting team of Rod Argent / Chris White / Russ Ballard was a strong competitor on that scene; they may have retained a bit of popularity only through their singalong anthems like ʽHold Your Head Upʼ and ʽGod Gave Rock'n'Roll To Youʼ, but there is a lot more to enjoy in the catalog, including far more tasteful, complex, and stimulating entries. Possible starting point: Argent (1970) is still very close in style to late-era Zombies (a must-have for any fan of Odessey And Oracle) — from there, it is best to simply proceed in chronological order and stop wherever you feel like stopping.
☺Arthur Brown: Unlike most other «crazy geniuses» of the Golden Age of Psychedelia, this guy, having made his name with outrageous antics and proto-glam theatrics in 1967-68, went on to have a long, varied, unpredictable, and confusing career: the only two things that most of his albums have in common are his semi-operatic, highly expressive and quite unique vocals, and the complete lack of ability to sell more than three copies of each. Nevertheless, he is well worth exploring — his sidekicks (Vince Crane, Andy Dalby, etc.) often provided him with first-rate musical backing, and his complete dedication to the ideals of peace, love, wild sex, and schizophrenia is always admirable. Possible starting point: The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (1968), his introduction to the general public, is still his only LP that people usually remember, for a good reason; but I also heartily recommend Requiem (1982), one of the least stereotypical electronic albums of the decade and one of the most curious «post-apocalyptic symphonies» ever written.
☺Band, The: If you want to learn all about «Americana»... you got a long road ahead of you, but if you want to know how it is possible for a company of Canadian rock'n'roll intellectuals (yes, the two words do not agree well with each other, but The Band have always been a walking contradiction anyway) to swallow «Americana» as a whole and spit it out with a modern man twist, The Band are there for you — in the 1960s, they may not have been the first to present an updated take on tradition, dubbed «roots-rock» for lack of a better term, but they were the ones to do it in the most encyclopaedic, ambitious, and technically elaborate way ever seen (enough to deal an ultimately mortal blow to the artistic career of Eric Clapton, who pretty much rejected his Cream legacy upon hearing their first album). Setting aside pretentiousness and occasional boredom (even the best «roots-rock» is occasionally boring), The Band did produce some of the most beautiful and deep music of their generation — although it might require reaching a certain age, or state of mind, to truly appreciate it. Possible starting point: Music From Big Pink (1968) for those who want their music more «artsy», or The Band (1969) for all the hardcore bearded folkies who want it as «rootsy» as possible.
☺Bee Gees, The: Opinions on The Bee Gees run the entire gamut from «heartless commercial leeches, unleashed upon humanity as punishment for its loss of cultural orientation» to «immaculate craftsmen and experienced connoisseurs of the human heart in all of its aspects». The fact that they are forever inscribed in the history of music is indisputable — no other act has managed to embody so much of the pop spirit of both the Sixties and the Seventies, and the journey from ʽHolidayʼ and ʽMassachusetsʼ to ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ and ʽStayin' Aliveʼ is one of the bizarrest journeys in art history. Personally, I think that the most natural — not to mention the most psychologically interesting — relationship with the Bee Gees should be one of love-and-hate, and hope to have reflected it somewhat in the reviews. Possible starting point: The Bee Gees 1st (1967) — their teenage Australian output aside, the proper way to deal with the Bee Gees is to start at the beginning and then stop wherever one feels like stopping, be it at the first split of the band in 1970, or at the move to the States in 1973, or at the transition to disco gloss in 1975-76, or at the dreary slide into bland adult contemporary in the 1980s.
☺Black Sabbath: The fathers of Heavy Metal as we know and love, tolerate, or abhor it — regardless of any particular attitude, metal is here to stay, and we have Tony Iommi to thank for its crushing riffs, Geezer Butler to thank for its not-give-a-damn attitude about using primitive, well-battered clichés for the lyrics, and Ozzy Osbourne to thank for daring to deliver these lyrics in one of rock's most classic examples of substituting mental illness for vocal technique. Most of all, of course, we have to thank the industrial aura of Birmingham and its factories, leaving a permanent trace in Tony Iommi's «iron fingers» and their interaction with the electric guitar. One of the silliest and most seductive combinations of individual talents ever seen in music, Black Sabbath in their prime produced a lengthy string of the heaviest and catchiest songs in the business; once Ozzy left and was replaced by a series of ever-worsening singers, things got much patchier, and Black Sabbath became very much of a «niche» band — but that don't have no backwards effect, and even after all these years, everybody still likes ʽParanoidʼ and ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ without having to swear the metalhead oath of loyalty. Possible starting point: Paranoid (1970) for the big classic rock radio hits or Master Of Reality (1971) for the single heaviest experience in musical history will do nicely, but nobody is through with Sabbath before going through the entire «big six» from 1970's self-titled debut to 1975's Sabotage (the latter being arguably the single greatest «art-metal» album ever released).
☺Blind Faith: This super-brief project of building a new band and a new musical synthesis from the building components of Cream and Traffic could have a future, but didn't — mostly due to serious technical/structural mistakes committed at the very beginning. It did yield a few classic songs, though, all of which are to be found on the band's only eponymous album (1969): filler notwithstanding, it does belong in every classic rock lover's collection.
○ Blodwyn Pig: A strictly second-rate «prog-roots» band from the early 1970s, led by former Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams and modestly visionary brass / woodwinds wiz Jack Lancaster. Due to a conflict of interests (Lancaster was pushing the band in a BS&T / Chicago-type jazz rock direction, whereas Abrahams was more interested in heavy blues rock), the ensemble only released two original albums, although there would be occasional reunions, or an occasional revival of the Blodwyn Pig moniker for some of Mick's solo albums. Possible starting point: Ahead Rings Out (1969) is their most critically acclaimed LP, although I think they actually got a little bit more «interesting» on the second album — anyway, if you are already acquainted with one, there is no reason not to hear the other.
○ Blood, Sweat & Tears: A great beginning marred with an ensuing career that ran for too long without any sense of purpose. Formed out of the ashes of Blues Project, these guys stood at the source of the whole «jazz-rock» genre, merging blues, rock, and pop with a «big band» style that could also somehow be sensitive and intimate. Then they ditched sensitive and intimate guy Al Kooper, replaced him with Tom Jones-influenced David Clayton-Thomas, and went steadily downhill for the next decade. That said, unlike their primary competition in the genre (Chicago), Blood, Sweat & Tears never once betrayed their roots — they did lightly flirt with prog, glam, funk, and disco, but never allowed themselves to descend into thoroughly cheesy «adult contemporary» muzak or place gloss and slickness above professional musicianship. Few of their albums beyond the first two or three are worth owning, but very few are ideologically disgusting, either. Possible starting point: Child Is Father To The Man (1968) is a golden classic and the band's only masterpiece, but for a more «representative» introduction to their post-Kooper image, Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969) is also recommendable.
○ Bloodrock: Doom-rock, Texan style! Well... not really. Maybe think of it more as a slightly B-movie-oriented local variant of Grand Funk Railroad. This band, let by grizzly-voiced Jim Rutledge and local guitar god Lee Pickens, combined rowdy American rock and roll with a tinge of overseas artsiness and psychedelia, and threw in a bit of trashy titillation (ʽD.O.A.ʼ, their most famous song, is one of the lyrically goriest creations of the early 1970s). They weren't great, but they were solid — certainly less devoid of talent than so many other hard rock acts at the time who could never understand the value of a good riff. Unfortunately, the fun only lasted for about three years, upon which both of the band's most interesting members departed and left it in the hands of the keyboard player — who teamed up with a future Christian rock singer and tried to turn the band into a third-rate prog-rock act, so please ignore those last two albums. Possible starting point: Bloodrock (1970) is the natural place to start, I guess, although the big hit single was from the second album. Actually, they were pretty consistent before the big plunge.
○ Blossom Toes: This outfit is mainly noticeable for releasing two albums in the late 1960s that sound like two entirely different bands. The debut, from 1967, is a swirling kaleidoscope of authentically British psychedelia — nothing produced by a genius, just an amazing whirlwind of musical ideas that replace each other like fireworks: not a lot of substance, but so much flash that your head will spin anyway. The second album, from 1969, substitutes psychedelia for heavy rock brutality and social consciousness a-plenty — nothing works on its own, but playing the two LPs back-to-back can be fun. Trivia note: guitarist and one of the two chief songwriters, Jim Cregan, would go on to become a Rod Stewart sidekick, and bears his share of responsibility for some of Rod's most horrendous records. Possible starting point: We Are Ever So Clean (1967), naturally, has a slightly higher share of endurable songs than its hard-rock follow-up.
○ Blue Cheer: Kings of the marginal «brutal, but friendly» psycho-metal West Coast movement, these guys are responsible for some of the wildest, noisiest, dumbest music made in the late 1960s — and indirectly responsible for, or at least presaging the later blossoming of a whole slew of «heavy-and-silly» subgenres, from KISS to Hawkwind, not to mention «stoner rock», «sludge metal», etc. Not surprisingly, much of what they did sounds seriously dated and, worse, seriously boring these days, but still, at their best, Blue Cheer were like nobody else and had their own brand of twisted-sick, but ultimately safe charm. Unfortunately, their heyday lasted for only about a year — followed by the band turning into a revolving-door experiment, struggling to find new directions (usually without much success), falling apart, then reconvening in the mid-Eighties to spend two more decades as a third-rate heavy metal outfit. Possible starting point: Vincebus Eruptum (1968) is their only LP to actually deserve recognition as an album, or even as a minor classic; start there, then proceed at your own risk.
○ Bobby Womack: Mostly known to the world as the author of the Rolling Stones' ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ (well, okay, so he was to me, for a long time), this one-time member of The Valentinos and a near-legitimate successor of Sam Cooke, who took him under his wing at one time, actually had a very interesting, varied, and unpredictable solo career. In the early days, he played a mean guitar, sang in a mean voice, and had a knack both for original songwriting and turning other people's songs on their heads, producing quite a few respectable outings in the R&B and funk genres. Eventually, he kind of fizzled out, lowered his defenses to disco and electro-funk, lost interest in music altogether, only to re-emerge in 2012 as a bizarre ghost of the past, croaking out confessional tunes to Damon Albarn's electronic experiments (!). All in all, while there are relatively few unforgettable Bobby Womack tunes, Bobby Womack himself as a musical character is quite unforgettable. Possible starting point: Communication (1971) and Understanding (1972) tend to be regarded as the high points of his funky period, but really, just about everything prior to the late 1970s, when he got sucked up by the disco bog, could qualify as a good start.
☺Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band: The musical equivalent of Monty Python, this merry troop led by jazz-influenced pop pranksters Viv Stanshall and Neil Innes actually had more intelligent insights into the roots, side effects, and limitations of the mid-to-late 1960s pop scene than anybody else — no wonder they were like the court jesters by the side of then-current royalty (the Beatles, who contributed quite a bit to the Bonzos' notability). The Bonzos' appeal is primarily comedic, but they had serious melodic potential, too, as well as a strong experimental side. Although they were very much a «product of 1967», and, like the Beatles, were forced to split by the merciless hand of time as the Sixties closed up, the music has survived, and songs like ʽThe Equestrian Statueʼ or ʽUrban Spacemanʼ will be just as welcome in the 21st century as they were at the height of flower power. Possible starting point: The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse (1968) is their peak in terms of seriousness and complexity, but Gorilla (1967) and Tadpoles (1969) have most of the catchy funny songs.
○ Box Tops, The: Alex Chilton's first band — one that took the world by surprise with ʽThe Letterʼ, when the 17-year old sung it with all the determination and desperation of a grizzled soulster smack dab in the middle of the Summer of Love. For several years, they were listed among the royalty of Memphis soul («blue-eyed soul», that is), churning out catchy, likeable, darkly romantic singles and albums that showed comparable amounts of love for black R&B and white baroque art-pop. However, they never functioned all that well as an actual band, whether it came to playing skills or songwriting abilities, and ultimately floundered in an era that called for bigger ambitions and broader horizons even on commercial pop singles. The mega-success of ʽThe Letterʼ, which was later covered by everybody and their grandmother, ensured that the band was not completely forgotten, but only registered admirers of mid-Sixties art-pop and blue-eyed soul need bother seeking out their entire catalog. Possible starting point: Well, if you're game, it still makes sense to begin with the big ones — The Letter/Neon Rainbow (1967) has the main claim to fame, as well as lots of pleasant, inoffensive pastiches to go along with it.
○ Brinsley Schwarz: This band, named after its uncannily named guitar player, was largely the brainchild of Nick Lowe, the principal songwriter and singer, and is usually extolled as the visiting card for the British «pub rock» scene of the early 1970s — honest, down-to-earth music that tried to stay away from both the progressive and the glam excesses of the day. Truth be told, they are no great shakes, though: Lowe and his pals had a good sense of taste, but neither the songwriting nor the playing stand serious competition with the leading acts of the day, and they let themselves be way too seriosly influenced by their betters, so that many of the songs explicitly sound like «Van Morrison-lite», «The Band-lite», even «Flying Burrito Brothers-lite», and the Burritos weren't exactly a lead zeppelin themselves! A few good songs here and there, a nice attitude on the whole, but it is not difficult to understand why the band was ultimately forgotten and now only lives on in the memories of serious connoisseurs. Possible starting point: Nervous On The Road (1973) is arguably their most fully realised effort, but if you want slower, subtler, more ambitious material, just go about them chronologically.
☺10cc: Smart, inventive, sarcastic, complex, catchy, British pop music for hip people — yes, the thing was not invented in the 2000s or even the 1990s, it all starts here as early as 1972 (still in Manchester, though). So, what's not to like? Well — nearly everything, except for the first four or five albums, since the departure of two crucial band members in 1976 left 10cc without a proper creative backbone, and they quickly degenerated into a routine, embarrassing mainstream pop act. But their first four years in the business — the word «stellar» should definitely be in there somewhere. Possible starting point: Sheet Music (1974).
☺ABBA: To admire these Swedes' «values» in pop music doesn't begin to define bad taste. But if you make even a mild attempt to deny their melodic genius, count yourself blacklisted. Possible starting point: Arrival (1976) or The Album (1978).
☺AC/DC: You probably have to be Scottish-born Australian to take rock'n'roll to the highest peaks of headbanging absurdity. If so, thank God for giving us Scotland and Australia. Possible starting point: Let There Be Rock (1977) or Back In Black (1980).
☺Aerosmith: These guys had one of the most befuddling careers in history: from the world's dirtiest, snappiest, sleaziest band in the 1970s («the American Stones»), in a desperate attempt to stay hip, they mutated into the world's biggest sellout act by kowtowing to hair metal values and helping establish the MTV brand of teen rock. They HAVE been quite young at heart even in the worst of days, though. Possible starting point: Toys In The Attic (1975).
☺Alan Parsons Project, The / Alan Parsons: «Prog-rock lite» for those who love their Pink Floyd for the dreaminess and the catchy choruses rather than the sharp edges. Still, the duo of Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons can come up with these choruses like few others in the business, and their deep, icy dreaminess is theirs and theirs only. At their best, the Project were interesting, intelligent, and involving, and their music still lingers. Possible starting point: Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (1976) and then all the way to the mid-Eighties, when they started to falter.
☺Alan Stivell: In the 1970s, this guy almost singlehandedly defined «Celtic Rock», not merely recreating traditional Breton music with the help of the traditional Celtic harp (as reconstructed by his father), but synthesizing it with the achievements of progressive rock as well. Complex, but quite accessible, and at times emotionally devastating music. Possible starting point: Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique (1972) is his international artistic breakthrough, but Symphonie Celtique (1979) is the magnum opus that puts his Celtic soul in the proper context of world music, and he really hasn't been as good ever since.
☺Amazing Blondel: One of the most delightful hoaxes in pop music history, these guys, at their early 1970s peak, created a masterful illusion of being serious progressive rockers, interested in creating a modern day version of Elizabethan court music. What they really did was play sissy folk-pop on archaic instruments, but they still ended up doing it with such elegance and friendliness that who the heck could care about «authenticity»? Just ignore their unfortunate post-1973 slide into generic soft-rock, after the departure of their chief songwriter. Possible starting point: Evensong (1970), and the following two records are also classic.
☺Armageddon: An extremely short-lived, one-album «hard-prog» band consisting of former members of Renaissance and Steamhammer with Keith Relf on lead vocals. Kind of like a cross between Yes and the Yardbirds — well worth checking out, even though I probably wouldn't go as far as to call it a «lost masterpiece». The album is Armageddon (1975).
☺Ash Ra Tempel / Ashra: A «Krautrock» band that essentially represents the vision of German guitar prodigy Manuel Göttsching (although, in the earliest incarnation, the vision was shared by future electroniz wizard Klaus Schulze as well). The «Ash Ra Tempel» phase covers the first half of the 1970s, with the music, a unique brand of atmospheric «cosmic rock», evenly split between electronics and guitars; the «Ashra» phase, beginning in 1976, places a heavier emphasis on electronic arrangements and ambience, although many albums are still well worth checking out. Göttsching is not God, but he is a fantastic player and a visionary, not to mention a grand influence on the whole electronic genre — there is no escape from getting to know these guys. Possible starting point: Ash Ra Tempel (1971).
☺Atomic Rooster: The project of former Arthur Brown sideman, organist Vincent Crane, and (during its peak years) rough-minded guitar player John Du Cann. Most people only know of the band because future ELP drum god Carl Palmer played on its first album (technically justifying the «supergroup» tag for ELP), which is a shame, because, at its best, Rooster played excellent, gritty, and slightly disturbing hard-art-rock, tinged with Crane's schizophrenia and fed by Du Cann's fine riff-creating skills. Too bad they got lost on the back shelf of the early 1970s prog movement — high time to dig 'em up again. Possible starting point: Death Walks Behind You (1970).
○ Average White Band, The: Best proof in the world, indeed, that «average white people» can play «average black R'n'B» as authentically as «average black people» — a bunch of dedicated Scotsmen who decided that, unlike most of their colleagues in the early 1970s, who were quite happy to play Scottish-flavored pub rock, they would instead try to compete with the likes of Tower Of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire. Their first few albums are quite up to those standards, actually, and worth seeking out if you are a heavy aficionado of 1970's R&B. However, like most of their competition, they overstayed their welcome, running the formula into the ground, eaten up by disco and 1980's electronics. Overall, more of a historical curio, although some of the early grooves, spliced together, would make for about 40 minutes of mini-greatness. Possible starting point: AWB (1974) — their American debut has most of the classics, including ʽPick Up The Piecesʼ, although the first album, Show Your Hand (1973), might be more consistent.
○ Bad Company: In the mid-1970s, these guys set out on the brave task of making hard rock cuddly, safe, and palatable for truckers and housewives alike, ensuring their immortal presence on what would become «classic rock radio». In their defense, for a brief while they had a decent sound, passable riffs and vocal hooks, and one of rock music's proverbially sexiest singers. But there is also no denying that they played a serious part in the trivialization and «boring-ification» of rock music as such — far from being the main or only culprits, they do have a hot corner in Hell reserved for the lot of them for at least several hundred thousand years. Possible starting point: Bad Company (1974) — their only record that is really worth listening to all the way, and it's far more than just my opinion. Start from there and stop whenever you've had enough, and definitely stay away from everything post-1979.
☺Badfinger: The best quasi-scientific proof that Luck exists is that Badfinger never got any of it. Sometimes labeled as a two-three-hit-wonder of an early 1970s Beatles clone, this band was really more of a spiritual than formal descendant of the Beatles — they tried to transplant Beatlesque sunny, poppy idealism into the 1970s, while at the same time working strictly within a traditional «rock band» format. In the end, they involuntarily ended up among the pioneers of power-pop, which didn't help them one bit. Poor management, wrong marketing, personal problems, psychic disturbances, suicides — everything that could go wrong, did go wrong at one time or other. Fascinating story, and not half-bad music, either (just do not try to judge it by proper Beatlesque standards — take it in the context of James Taylor instead, and everything will be fine). Possible starting point: No Dice (1970) or Straight Up (1971) have most of the major hits and lots of delicious non-filler, but Wish You Were Here (1974) might be Badfinger at their most accomplished.
○ Baker Gurvitz Army: Ginger Baker served in more bands than he's got fingers and toes (and his drummer abilities may lead to suggest that he's got more than most): this one, formed in the mid-1970s with brothers Paul and Adrian Gurvitz, formerly of Gun, was the closest he ever came to embracing «progressive» rock, and the results are... well, whatever one could expect from hybridizing a professional, but mediocre prog band with the gingerest drummer in the world. Yes, it actually worked, even if only for a brief while. Possible starting point: Elysian Encounter (1975), but they really only have three records out, and the third one goes way too far in the direction of funky dance beats (guess even Ginger Baker-led prog bands need to earn a living).
☺Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: One of the two great long-named «symph-prog» gifts from Italy to the progressive rock movement (the other one was Premiata Forneria Marconi), this band used to have a unique sound, shaped out of a merger between British progressive rock, the American jazz scene, and the Italian folk / pop tradition, and masterminded by two highly talented brother keyboardists (Gianni and Vittorio Nocenzi) and a gifted, if occasionally corny, vocalist (Francesco DiGiacomo). Their overall story is typical of the average progressive band — a brief formative period, a series of stunning masterpieces of the genre, a confused period of experiment and adjustment, an embarrassingly awful «pop sellout» catastrophe, and a semi-successful «reputation revival» — but the quality of their finest albums is anything but average. A must-hear for everyone who is serious about 1970s music. Possible starting point: Darwin! (1972) is the usual critical favorite, mainly because of the innovative concept, but melody-wise, the follow-up Io Sono Nato Libero (1973) is arguably even better.
○ Barclay James Harvest: When they started out, they were an idealistic, mildly charismatic, undoubtedly talented bunch of second-tier art-rockers. They loved the Beatles, the Bee Gees, the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, and Gustav Mahler. They wrote catchy and impressive, if seriously derivative, songs. They could get better or they could get worse. They chose the latter, and, somewhere around 1974, started a slow, steady, step-by-step descent into mediocrity, platitudes, oceans of cheese, and, finally, an atrociously icky adult contemporary sound — an exemplary journey into the depths of bad taste. Quite a sad story, really, but worth checking out for the very intrigue of it. Possible starting point: Barclay James Harvest (1970) — just start out with the very first record they did, and stop whenever you feel like stopping: the overall curve has its little ups from time to time, but the overall direction is steady downwards.
☺Be-Bop Deluxe: Unfortunately, the image of these guys (this guy, to be more precise: Be-Bop Deluxe were never much more than a rotating set of backing players to support the songwriting, singing, and guitar playing of multi-talent kid Bill Nelson) was not distinctive enough to carve them out a perennial niche in the public conscience. But at his best, Nelson combined the oddity and experimentalism of David Bowie with the theatricality of Peter Hammill, and played a far meaner guitar than either of those, or most of those who worked with them. Early Be-Bop Deluxe records are mainly glam-influenced guitar extravaganzas, with little attention to hooks but lots of attention to going wherever one's fingers wish to take you to; later Be-Bop Deluxe cuts down improvisation in favor of a more disciplined approach to songwriting, although the band never managed to make the proper transition to New Wave stylistics (before doing that, Nelson simply split them, and then continued operating as a solo artist). Anyway, a band that is well worth getting to know for all fans of «intellectually oriented kick-ass rock'n'roll», or whatever. Possible starting point: Sunburst Finish (1976) may be Nelson's perfect balance between memorable songwriting and guitar heroics — earlier albums swing too much towards the latter, later albums droop too much towards the former.
☺Betty Davis: A veritable «monster» of a woman, surprisingly little remembered these days despite not only having been married to Miles Davis for several years, but also releasing three of the fiercest, wildest, badass-est funk albums of the mid-1970s. Compared to other performers on the funk/R&B scene, Betty was not much of a singer, but she compensated for this with a presence that pretty much melted all living matter for miles around as long as she was getting it on. The three albums she cut were not all that musically innovative, but her backing band was always able to put on just the right groove for the «nasty gal» — the shock value that those records had back then has, of course, become seriously depreciated with the passing of time (now that we got Britney and Miley, who cares?), but, fortunately, the music still remains quite invigorating. Possible starting point: Betty Davis (1973) is her first and arguably best shot, but, really, what's a measly-short three-album pack to anyone those days? Just get 'em all.
☺Big Star: The most critically acclaimed outfit of the «Power Pop Big Three» of the early 1970s (along with Badfinger and the Raspberries). Like Badfinger, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell spent most of their lives either hopping on fast-moving bandwagons and breaking their legs in the process, or going against the tide and getting drowned — which did not prevent them from achieving cult status in due time, and influencing a whole lot of more successful, but quite frequently less talented people in their wake. At his best, Bell was an almost McCartney-level hookmeister and craftsman, while Chilton could display his inner demons with a Lennon-level force of expressivity, although neither of the two could be said to have always been at his respective best. But their collected output, patchy as it is, is so scarce that it is well worth ignoring the petty flaws and just grabbing all of it, particularly if you are a fan of either intelligent guitar-based pop music or deranged/disturbed artistic personalities (or both). Possible starting point: #1 Record (1972) is where it all begins and, in my opinion, it really does not get any better than this, although by the time of Third (1975) it gets very, very, very different.
☺Bill Withers: There are two songs in the popular conscience that are tightly associated with Bill Withers: ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ and ʽLean On Meʼ, of which only the former gives a proper glimpse of the psychological depths to which this unusual fellow could penetrate in his prime. Although classified as an R&B performer, in reality Bill's early albums merged elements of «black» R&B and «white» singer-songwriting, achieving a brilliant, insightful, and sometimes downright creepy synthesis that was completely unique even for its time. Later on, unfortunately, as commercial pressure towards mediocrity gradually got the better of the artist, he did make a transition to rather ordinary, run-of-the-mill, accentuate-the-positive R&B — probably the best thing about late Bill Withers is that he had the good sense of completely cutting down his solo career before it was too late. But those early albums, ooh boy. Possible starting point: Just As I Am (1971). The second LP is just as strong; from there, proceed chronologically and stop at will.
○ Billy Joel: Few people in the pop music business polarize the simple folk more than Mr. Joel. For some, he is an absolute melodic genius, a sincere chameleon who managed to crack the core of just about every popular style one can think of, and still remained himself in the process, while providing a whole generation (maybe two) with an unbeatable backlog of some of the catchiest tunes in the world. For others, Billy «Attila» Joel is an annoying professional hack, pandering to the lowest common denominator with diluted, de-intellectualized, cornified distortions of pop and especially rock music, putting his vile stamp on everything he can lay his hands on and pretending to be «Mr. Rock & Roll» when he is really a second-rate music hall entertainer. In short, Billy Joel is a fascinating, colorful figure, and a real gas to either love or hate with every fiber of your soul. For obvious reasons, I tend to side with the haters' camp, but even I do have to admit that sometimes, I hate the concept of a Billy Joel far more than the actual music — and that, for all his sins against good taste, the man never made even a single truly «awful» album. Possible starting point: The Stranger (1977), beginning his long romance with master producer Phil Ramone, is classic Billy that even some of the haters have to like — start from there and work your way in both directions, to the early L.A. days or the later New York triumphs.
☺Blue Öyster Cult: Do not mistake this band for just another crude, lumpy hard rock act of the 1970s — in reality, at their best the Cult merged «cheap» arena-rock trappings with a post-modernist / bohemian / New York-ish sensibility in a way that makes them likable for truck drivers and intellectuals alike; come to think of it, you could say they were the musical equivalent of an intellectual truck driver, or something of the sort. Managed and lyrically aided by such rock critics and pop visionaries as Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, and being perfectly accomplished musicians and songwriters in their own right, they released a set of truly classic albums that please the body and stimulate the mind, before the Eighties chewed them up and spat them out with no particular place to go. Possible starting point: the self-titled debut album (1972) remains my personal favorite due to its particularly sinister sound that they later traded for a less enigmatic approach — the most reasonable way to go is to start from there and work your way up to that particular point where they do not interest you any more (which may significantly differ, because they went through several creative metamorphoses in the late 1970s, in the early 1980s, and then again in the mid-1980s).
○ Bo Hansson: Anyone in the mood for some classic-era Scandinavian progressive rock? Check out this guy — a lonesome, moody, imaginative multi-instrumentalist (keyboards preferred over guitars, but everything is possible) with a penchant for getting inspirations from fantasy novels: his 1970 Swedish debut, later translated into English as Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings, is the first LP in history completely dedicated to J.R.R. The music itself is usually a mix of folk, pop, and jazz motives, moody, occasionally to the point of «haunting», but more generally, inobtrusive and not particularly energetic or dynamic — «elevator prog», so to speak, but done with enough taste and imagination to warm a solitary autumnal evening or two. Possible starting point: Lord Of The Rings (1970) is Hansson's only record to have ever enjoyed any commercial success, but the three other instrumental titles that followed do not really fall behind in quality. However, if the debut feels a little limp and saggy to you, it's probably not worth it to bother with the rest of Bo's catalog.
☺Bob Marley: Bob Marley is not the be-all-end-all of reggae music, if you really want to immerse yourself in the genre — better to say that Bob Marley was an «event in itself», a guy who used his Jamaican reggae background as a foundation for a major merger of reggae, rock, pop, and Rastafari proselytism. I have a very hard time getting sentimental to his message (hard as it is to separate the good ol' goodness-and-kindness from all the Haile Selassie fluff), but, much to his honor, Bob never forgot the musicality behind the message — The Wailers, both in the classic Peter Tosh era and in the «glossier» era that followed, were always mega-masters of the groove, the hook, and the drive. Possible starting point: In terms of general accessibility, Catch A Fire (1973) is where The Wailers first shifted from a more «hardcore» reggae groove to a more open, eclectic range of influences. In terms of breathtaking scope, Exodus (1977) is still Marley's magnum opus — ol' Moses himself would be proud of this homage.
○ Bonnie Raitt: The Queen of Inoffensively Middle-of-the-Road Blues Rock, Bonnie Raitt is hardly a great proposition when you want music that is at least a little rough around the edges and shakes you up rather than cools you down. Her most interesting period of artistic existence, I think, was in the very early days, when her biggest influence was Sippie Wallace and when each of her records offered a modern-day-updated take on the female urban blues stylistics of the 1920s — an approach that allowed her to retain some individuality even in an age when blues-rock albums came and went for a dime a dozen. Pretty soon, however, she got streamlined and became rather poorly distinguishable in the crowds, apart from her easily recognizable raspy voice (still not that unique) and impressive slide guitar playing skills (still not that exceptional). If it weren't for the cheesy marketing strategy that miraculously put her on top in 1989 with one of her most boring, adult-contemporary-oriented albums, nobody from the statistic majority would probably remember the lady now — but that's the way life goes. Possible starting point: in most such cases, it is best to start at the beginning and stop whenever the going gets too rough (or, in this situation, too smooth), so Bonnie Raitt (1971) is certainly a much better bet than the commercially successful Nick Of Time (1989) or even Sweet Forgiveness (1977), when she was still drinking and partying and being properly impolite.
☺Brand X: One of the more interesting fusion bands of the late 1970s, these guys, when they were ate their best, thrived much more on group interplay and meaningful melodic themes than showcasing their flashiness — the usual bane of so many bands introducing «jazz models» into a rock setting. The core of the band consisted of John Goodsall on guitar and Percy Jones on bass, with none other than Phil Collins himself supplying the drum work when free from his other innumerable obligations (in fact, a listen to at least the band's first album is a must for everybody who wants to put together an objective picture of the man before the effigy-burning ritual), and most of their stuff ranges from comfortably listenable to emotionally impressive — in fact, even some (not all) of the later reunion albums are worth checking out. Possible starting point: by all means, begin with the beginning — Unorthodox Behaviour (1976) should provide the best reason for this band's existence, and then you can see for yourself if you need any more.
☺Brian Eno: Arguably one of the most significant figures in 20th century music — not just because of his solo career, but also because of his innumerable collaborations with other artists, including production work and general artistic guidance. Simply put, Eno is a rare example of a three-in-one package: he has an insdisputable pop genius, capable of coming up with first-rate, unforgettable melodies (at least, in his prime); he is one of the first and most successful wizards of electronic technology; and he is a master of «intellectual spirituality», constantly working at the intersection of science and magic so that the former does not extinguish the latter, and the latter is intensified by the former. That said, one should probably exercise caution when getting into Eno — most of his output since the late Seventies has been in the «ambient» genre, and if you just throw on Music For Airports without a prior understanding of where its author is coming from, consequences can be dire. The best way is probably to start out with his «holy foursome» futuristic pop masterpieces from 1973-77, then slowly progress into more demanding territory (there's a lot of «intermediate» releases in his catalog, halfway between pop and pure ambient that can ease the transition). Possible starting point: All four of those albums are required listening, so Here Come The Warm Jets (1973) is a natural start, whereas Before And After Science (1977) is a perfectly constructed «musical contrast shower» that starts in pop territory and ends in proto-New Age. From there, you can proceed into the vast oceans of ambience and minimalism if you dare.
☺Bruce Springsteen: Years of listening to The Boss and thinking about the relative merits of his output have solidified and clarified my love/hate relationship with the man who made some significant trade-offs between talent, vision, and mass popularity in his lifetime. Of all the «important» artists to ever achieve that mass popularity, Springsteen is arguably the most problematic: the more his fame and fortune increased, the simpler his melodies and the less interesting his lyrics became, although, fair enough, they were still often surprisingly efficient. I admire the guy as the ultimate showman with the ultimate in showman teams (the legendary E Street Band, without whose help, let's face it, the man is almost nothing), and I feel emotionally overwhelmed by a large part of his output, old or new, yet I have always had and continue to have reservations — there is simply something not quite right with the 50-ton spiritual pressure that he exerts on you night and day, regardless of whether it's an actual soulful epic or his bulldozer take on rock'n'roll like ʽCadillac Ranchʼ. In other words, I prefer to stay on this side of the fence and let the man stay on his side — reserving my unrestricted love for those who do not have to fight so hard to wrench it from me (like Dylan, for instance). But apart from that, has there ever been anyone to channel and re-distribute that blue-collar energy with more power and efficiency than Springsteen? Probably not. That formula may seem so simple, even a child with some muscle could master it, and yet, just look at, oh I dunno, John Mellencamp to see how hard it is to properly deliver something so simple. Possible starting point: It is impossible to hear just one Springsteen album if you have decided to make a first acquaintance with the character. The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle (1974) is a young Boss still making music of surprising melodic and lyrical complexity and experimenting with his musical language. Born To Run (1975) sets the Springsteen formula in action, sacrificing experiment and musicality for the sake of sheer, unbridled power. However, my personal favorite is Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978) — a near-perfect combination of those hooks, that power, and, yes, the darkness, such an important component of those great songs of his where he sets aside the populism and confronts his demons for a while.
☺Budgie: With so many first-rate innovative heavy rock bands in the late Sixties and early Seventies, these guys arrived just a bit too late on the scene to make much of an impact or even develop a fully independent style — at their best, they usually sounded like a slightly more «intelligent» Black Sabbath with slightly weaker (but still awesome) riffs. Also presaging early Rush, perhaps, what with their bass player sounding like a roughcut first model of Geddy Lee and all. Nevertheless, this Welsh trio is fairly respectable as far as songwriting and playing goes, and if you are thirsty for more high quality Seventies' heaviness without running the risk of finding yourself face to face with a bunch of bland, unmemorable, third-rate clones, by all means feel free to explore those records — Tony Bourge was the most diligent and gifted of the first batch of Iommi's disciples, and there's always a chance that one might find Burke Shelley's vocal tone less irritating than Ozzy's (although both are really an acquired taste). Possible starting point: Never Turn Your Back On A Friend (1973) is typically mentioned as the one where it all gelled perfectly for Budgie, but, really, just about anything from 1970 to 1975 is comparable in (usually high) quality. Like most of their ilk, they began faltering as the New Wave age dawned on them, and never truly recovered, despite some frantic attempts and ill-fated lineup changes — but for about five years, they were the real thing.
○ 10,000 Maniacs: Liberal-guilt-ridden college-folk-rock, intelligent (rather than intellectual) almost to the point of suffocation, but nice and harmless enough to forgive for an almost complete lack of hooks. Think a female-driven version of R.E.M. with all the technical skill but almost none of the talent. Still, Natalie Merchant is an undeniable presence, and Robert Buck's guitar sound is a tasty sort of juice to steep oneself in from time to time. Possible starting point: MTV Unplugged (1993): functions as a solid best-of collection. Proceed from there only if you happen to be totally mad about it.
○ ABC: What do you get when you cross generic, but catchy synth-pop with the troubled sensibility of a decadent singer-songwriter whose idol is Bryan Ferry? That's right — Martin Fry and his interchangeable gang of sometimes eccentric, sometimes simply professional buddies. Sometimes considered a purely one-album wonder of the early New Wave era in the UK, they actually have an interesting, if very uneven and never all that breathtaking, back catalog. Possible starting point: unquestionably The Lexicon Of Love (1982), but they do have other records.
☺Accept: German metal's pride and joy. Udo Dierkschneider's voice + Wolf Hoffmann's riffs = headbanging incarnate, as long as you disregard the inane lyrics (at least they're socially conscious). Possible starting point: Restless & Wild (1982).
☺Adam And The Ants/Adam Ant: The glam rock spectacle à la Bowie/Bolan, updated for the post-punk audience. Adam Ant has no deep message to convey to the public — he is merely a fascinating exhibitionist, for whom dressing up as a pirate was no less important than providing a catchy hook. But he did both things with verve, and that verve makes many of his former hits still fresh and enjoyable for those who want to bother. Possible starting point: Kings Of The Wild Frontier (1980) for the band, or Friend Or Foe (1982) for the solo artist — there is not that much difference.
☺Adolescents: Pioneering Orange County hardcore punk since 1980. Like every hardcore band with a bit of self-respect, staked their entire reputation on the explosive debut record, a hardcore classic if there ever was one, and spent the rest of their lives experimenting (miserably), bickering (wildly), falling apart (permanently), reuniting (occasionally), and saving most of the ass-kicking for live shows well into the 21st century. Possible starting point: Adolescents (1980) — nothing else they did even comes close, really.
☺Adrian Belew: King Crimson's (Frank Zappa's, David Bowie's, Talking Heads' etc.) lead guitarist makes music that is equal part weird bizarre shit and traditional melodic pop, perfectly satisfying the world's most blessed minority of middle-roaders. Possible starting point: Young Lions (1990) for more pop, Desire Caught By The Tail (1986) for more weirdness.
☺Adverts, The: One of Britain's finest punk-rock outfits — actually, at their best these guys were more like heavy, crunchy, but melodic pop-rock, yet viciously infected with the punk spirit of 1977. Faded into obscurity after releasing one classic, timeless album and one respectable, but misunderstood attempt to move on, although band leader T.V. Smith's solo career is worth checking out as well. If none of this is enough to convert you, then maybe the fact of having the hottest female bass player in the entire history of punk will. Possible starting point: Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts (1978).
☺Agent Orange: These guys' identity is usually defined as that of the «fathers of surf-punk», although, in reality, surf-rock influences only constituted a minor part of their sound (yeah, they covered 'Misirlou' and 'Pipeline' all right). What sometimes gets lost behind the label is the fact that Mike Palm's band was responsible for creating some of the catchiest melodies in hardcore punk, period, oxymoronous as that may sound — too bad they only release something like one album per decade. Possible starting point: Living In Darkness (1981).
○ Agnostic Front: Although this band has not had any single album out for me to like, their position as that of a leading force in New York hardcore in the early 1980s cannot be denied. As far away from «poppy» or «catchy» as it ever gets, closer in attitude to «grindcore» than to any of their forefathers in the punk movement, they used to be the meanest badasses around. They also had a pretty turbulent history, with constant lineup changes (vocalist Roger Miret and guitarist Vinnie Stigma have, however, stuck together through thick and thin), and an odd, never-ending, procedure of switching between «genuine hardcore» and «crossover metalcore». Pretty interesting from an overall cultural stance. The «songs», however, are mostly garbage. Possible starting point: Victim In Pain (1984) is the legendary debut — just proceed from there if you're seduced, and stop whenever and wherever you like.
○ A-Ha: Norway's ambiguous contribution to the world of pop excellence. They had the mistake of having their biggest hits (which were not necessarily their best songs) in the «synth pop» genre in the mid-Eighties, but it may be worth a journey through the sea of cheese if you have run out of solid pop melodies, powerful romantic singing, and semi-successful attempts of mutating from teen idols to «mature artists». Possible starting point: Scoundrel Days (1986).
☻Alcatrazz: Utterly flat «soul-metal» from the mid-Eighties, sort of like Gary Moore without all the cool guiar riffs, but with twice as much testosterone. Mainly notorious for jump-starting the solo career of Yngwie Malmsteen and earning music industry points for Steve Vai. A couple good songs on their last and least popular album do not help matters much. Possible starting point: Stay away altogether. There are better things in life.
☺Angry Samoans: At the forefront of the LA hardcore scene, these guys were way too intellectual to create intellectual music, coming up instead with some of the harshest, most offensive and demented tunes to grace the punk movement — most of them tuneful and professional at the same time. They were only really good for one album and a few singles, but that is sort of essential for a hardcore band, too. Possible starting point: Back From Samoa (1982).
○ Anthrax: Third-run heroes of the thrash metal kingdom, behind Metallica and Slayer (fourth-run to some, actually, if you add Megadeth to the list). Distinguished from their brethren by a specific, comic-book-fueled sense of humour, aptly displayed in the mid-1980s; less fortunate ever since they became more serious, though. Possible starting point: Among The Living (1987).
☺Art Of Noise, The: Not just pioneers of sampling techniques, but actually one of the best bands that tried to take the silliest excesses of the 1980s and reinterpret them as the beginning of a new musical era and mentality. It did not really work out in the end, but it left behind a bunch of albums that really sound like nothing else. Possible starting point: Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise? (1984).
○ Arthur Russell: One of the oddest and hippest «forgotten heroes» of the modernist era of pop. An omnivorous multi-instrumentalist and an effective songwriter in all sorts of genres, Russell preferred two styles throughout his life: avantgarde cello-driven sonic landscapes and wildly experimental dance-pop grooves with complex, unpredictable arrangements. If that already sounds bizarre to you, there is more: collaboration with about a million side projects that no one outside the so-called «No Wave» scene has heard about, reluctance to put out records due to a bad case of perfectionalism, and dying from AIDS less than a year after Freddie Mercury. Bottomline: run, don't walk — but do not necessarily expect «genius», as today's hipsters will be instructing you. Possible starting point: The World Of Arthur Russell (2004).
○ Asia: Where the 1970s had Boston, Styx, and Journey, the 1980s had Asia: «progressive rock» stripped of its complexity and innovation, beefed up with repetitive pop hooks, and retaining all of its pretentiousness and pomp. If we further emphasize the «Eighties» aspect of it, with all the pop metal and corny electronic overtones, this sounds like a recipé for something genuinely awful, and in many ways it is. Asia's saving grace, however, is that the band was originally dominated by «serious» veteran proggers — a team assembled from the ashes of ELP, King Crimson, and Yes — adding a touch of class that is nearly always there, even on the most wretched of songs. Eventually, they lost most of the founding fathers and went in the direction of near-total garbage, but in recent years the founding fathers patched it up, so today, the old boys are still touring the world and writing «prog-lite» for the undemanding consumer.
○ Associates, The: A Scottish band, led by operatically gifted doom-and-gloomsman Billy McKenzie and inventive non-virtuoso guitarist Alan Rankine — the first album is sort of a «Roxy Music meets The Cars» kind of thing, from then on it's more like «Roxy Music meets Depeche Mode», with the band steadily going from guitar-oriented New Wave rock to artsy synth-pop within two years. With Rankine quitting, McKenzie descended into cheap emptiness over the rest of the decade, then, unable to re-ascend properly, committed suicide. Not an «essential» band for getting to know the era, but one worth getting to know in the end. Possible starting point: The Affectionate Punch (1979), as the band's only genuinely «rocking» album, but, overall, everything up to and including Perhaps (1985) is recommendable — stay away from McKenzie's late Eighties stuff, though, it's mostly just generic dance pop with very little creativity.
☺Aztec Camera: A one-man band led by yet another Scottish wonderchild, Roddy Frame; often lumped in with the late New Wave movement on the strength of its debut record, but really more of a «troubled singer-songwriter» project, going through lots of vastly different stages (ranging from Dire Straits-ish philosophic blues to formulaic dance-pop to shiny guitar-led pop-rock etc.) in which Roddy’s artistic persona is the only permanent link — smart, romantic, complex, idealistic, stimulating, but sometimes a little overbearing through the denseness of the lyrics. Rarely remembered today because they could never solidly occupy one particular niche of the market, not overtly consistent, but well worth checking out — a full CD’s worth of the best Aztec Camera tunes would qualify as one of the finest pop collections of the 1980s/1990s. Possible starting point: Either High Land, Hard Rain (1983) — New Wave pop was never done better on a bedrock of acoustic guitars, or Stray (1990) — Roddy’s attempt at building his own White Album is predictably not all that it could be, but still a big success.
○ B-52's, The: Greatest «intellectual party band» of all time — these guys were arguably one of the most lightweight New Wave acts in existence, but they managed to capitalize on that fact, and turn their very shallowness into an amazingly seductive musical philosophy. Neither depressive nor mentorial, the B-52's at their best offer speedy dance rhythms, unforgettable hooks, terrific harmonies contrasting with hilarious / annoying nerdy guy recitals, boundless lyrical references, and a surprisingly consistent discography over the years (although their mainstream commercial success in the late 1980s did come at certain expenses). If somehow the kitschy, reckless antics of Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Cindy Wilson leave you cold or, worse, indignant, try readjusting your wavelengths — I cannot imagine anybody but the most hardcore puritan unmoved by the likes of ʽRock Lobsterʼ. Possible starting point: The B-52's (1979) is the one that started it all, and it has by far their most classic numbers — proceed from there and just stop at will.
○ Bad Brains: On paper (and upon first sight and sound) these guys seem unique — a 1970s black band that started out in a jazz-fusion vein, then quickly switched to punk and became the pioneering force in the speedy hardcore movement, then added an aggressive reggae side to its pedigree. Unfortunately, the novelty of it all only lasted for a few years, after which the «amazing madness» waned, a more generic and boring metallic component replaced the fun of old, and the band switched to a draggy, utterly mediocre existence for the rest of its career. Possible starting point: Black Dots (recorded in 1979, released only in 1996) is a set of early demos that captures the band at their freshest and least forgettable; of the official «numeric» releases, Rock For Light (1983) probably has the best songs from both their hardcore and their reggae stocks.
○ Bad Religion: Obviously, many bands can lay claim to being «the AC/DC of hardcore punk» — considering how formally limited the style is in the first place. But Bad Religion may have laid the most tenacious of these claims, releasing a steady, unbroken stream of exactly same-sounding «three-chord-based» albums over the years. Their saving grace is total, 100% commitment, fueled by frontman Greg Graffin's fanatical leftist faith and main guitarist Brett Gurewitz's ongoing mission to keep the gap between speedy punk rock and colorful power pop bridged as securely as possible. Possible starting point: Suffer (1988), after half a decade of swaying to and fro, finalizes and stabilizes the Bad Religion formula forever (later albums tend to slow down the tempos of some of the songs, not always to the band's advantage) — for non-fans, this might be all the Bad Religion they really need; fans, however, will need to assemble the complete catalog, since not even the worst Bad Religion album is that much worse than the best one. And as of 2013, they show no signs of stopping.
☺Bangles: They may have sold out the «Paisley Underground» to corporate greed back in the mid-1980s, but they were still one of the most charming, intelligent, and tasteful girl bands in an era when «commercially oriented pop music» had all but officially gained the status of lethal biological weapon. Corporate machinery, unfortunately aided by an untimely alliance with Prince, destroyed the band fairly quickly, but for a few years out there, simple pop music did not get much better than that. Possible starting point: All Over The Place (1984) is unquestionably their best — a proper mix of jangly folk rock, old-school garage aggressiveness, and modernistic relevance that, unfortunately, they would never quite recapture the same way again.
○ Bathory: One of the quirkiest Scandinavian metal bands out there — Bathory was essentially a one-man project, with all of its material written, and fairly often, though not always, played and recorded by the reclusive loner Quorthon (because of this, live appearances by Bathory were few and far in between, something highly atypical for a metal band). As if that weren't enough, Quorthon himself went through several distinct stages in his career, starting out as the quintessential, Satan-owned, prophet of speedy black metal with fabulous verve and horrendously lo-fi production, then gradually inventing «epic Viking metal», matching medieval pomp with efficiently brutal riffs and vicious attitudes, then descending into mediocre thrash territory, then returning back to his Viking roots with such a vengeance that his heart finally gave out in 2004. Even if your heart is thoroughly immune towards extreme forms of heavy metal, you will still have to admit that the Bathory journey is in a class of its own, and that Quorthon's personality deserves all the curiosity it can get. Possible starting point: Hammerheart (1990) is often listed among the pioneering releases of «Viking metal», and, at the very least, deserves an educational listen, although I do share the opinion that it also contains Quorthon's most inspired musical passages. Black metal fans would need to go back in time from there, while epic metal fans would have to go forward (but disregard the mediocre-to-awful thrash homages from the mid-1990s).
○ Bats, The: More like «New Zealand's Favorite Fruit Bats». Led by the indomitable Robert Scott, these guys came up with a vastly unoriginal, but mildly individualistic and pleasant formula in the late 1980s — «folk-pop-rock» with jangly guitars, weak, but persistent hooks, and humble, but tasteful attitudes. Not too smart, not too stupid, not too loud, not too quiet, not too minimalistic, not too overdone. The formula works OK for about two or three records (not necessarily in chronological order), but then, of course, gets a little wearisome. Possible starting point: with this type of bands, the debut often remains their best offering, and, indeed, Daddy's Highway (1987) has probably never been topped by these guys, even though they have remained consistently listenable through the years.
☺Bauhaus: These guys have penetrated all the textbooks as the fathers of «Goth rock», a tagline that is sure to discredit them in the eyes of subculture-haters before they have a chance to hear even one note played/sung by the two-headed beast that is Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash. In reality, although the band's visual image and artistic philosophy are inextricably tied to the early Eighties and seem to have dated rather badly, their brand of «New Wave rock theater» still sounds unique and exciting to this very day, and the early albums are chock-full of unforgettable tunes — more like a darker, more abrasive update of early Roxy Music than a generic poseur celebration of suicidal depression. Those hairstyles and outfits may be worth just a chuckle now, but Murphy's potential of hypnotizing the listener, and Ash's potential to send the listener into a paroxysmal state with his guitar escapades, remains steadfast well into the 21st century. Possible starting point: Advisable to start off from where it starts — In The Flat Field (1980) kicks more ass and generates more hook-filled excitement than later, somewhat more contemplative releases, but given the shortness of the band's career, you won't have far to go anyway.
○ Beat Happening: Led by three professional non-players and non-players from Olympia, Washington, this para-holy trinity quickly rose to the ranks of Great Gods of Lo-Fi by figuring out a truly great gimmick — how to impersonate a bunch of talented, trying, but rough-cut and untrained 12-year olds aspiring for pop greatness. Their «classic» records will spook off just about anybody who has perfect pitch, but for the rest of us there's quite a bit of sweet, innocent, seductive charm in their best songs, which combine quasi-naive twee-pop attitudes with subtle sarcasm and occasional dark humor. Unfortunately, the gimmick got old pretty quickly, and it was not until their very last album that they made a serious effort to bring their image and style up to speed, by which time it was too late. Possible starting point: Beat Happening (1985) is where it's at — if the album charms you rather than horrifies you with its minimalistic riffs, tinny sound, and intentionally off-key singing, proceed further at your own risk.
○ Big Black: Basically just a vehicle for the sick, but highly artistic fantasies of sonic wizard Steve Albini, Big Black lasted only about half a decade, which allowed them to fully explore the formula — crooked tales of human ugliness, perversity, and idiocy set to mechanical, intentionally «soulless» drum machine beats and some of the most vicious and aurally uncomfortable guitar tones in music history. As far removed from yer average «hardcore» sound as possible for a band with its roots firmly rooted in hardcore, this music is definitely not for the feeble-minded, but Albini goes far beyond simplistic «shock value»: he is really one of the most vivid painters of the «dark underbelly» of the Eighties. Possible starting point: Atomizer (1986) is the band's most finely printed calling card, but do not miss the early EPs, either — no Big Black song delivers as strong and basic a punch as ʽCablesʼ.
☺Billy Bragg: I am always cautious about hardcore leftists, and even more cautious about hardcore leftists in music, but Billy Bragg builds up a pretty good case — over thirty years, he has displayed much more intelligence in both his melodies and his words than the average hardcore leftist, and he has usually managed to integrate his politics and his personal issues in such a way as not to irritate the listener too much by either of the two. Beginning as an «electrobusker» (playing his songs to the sound of nothing but an amplified six-string), he then gradually learned to make good use of backing bands, merging punk, pop, and folk in a traditionalist manner while always singing of current issues. He is not a great songwriter, but over the years he has refined both his sense of melody and his personal charisma to the extent that his music actually grows more endearing as he grows older — a rare enough thing for rockers. Possible starting point: Don't Try This At Home (1991) probably has the largest concentration of cool songs from the man, although it tells you nothing about his electro-busking, or about his interpretations of Woody Guthrie with Wilco, or about his finding a perfect melancholic serenity in his later years, so the catalog is well worth exploring beyond this one point.
☺Birthday Party, The: Nick Cave cut his teeth — and sank them pretty deep in the flesh of stagnant bourgeois morality, too — while providing lead vocals and violent stage behavior for this classic Australian band of the post-punk era. With the equally maniacal guitarist Rowland S. Howard as second principal member, The Birthday Party fused hardcore punk, avantgarde jazz, Goth, and several other influences to create a sound that was truly one of a kind, even for the late 1970s / early 1980s and their overwhelming explosion of new talents. There may have been innumerable cases of «madmen» of rock history, but very few were able to raise to the same heights as this band did — maybe only The Stooges, whose «modernized» descendants Cave and Howard would appear to be. Possible starting point: For those who want a «gentler» introduction to the Party, Prayers On Fire (1981) is probably the optimal point of entry. For those who are not afraid to go all the way right away, Junkyard (1982) would be this band's insaniest masterpiece.
☺Black Flag: Invention of hardcore punk — should that even count as an achievement, considering how many crappy bands followed in its wake? (Besides, hardcore was really invented by Bad Brains, but let's not fight about this, boys and girls). What should count as an achievement is that band leader Greg Ginn managed to come up with a fairly unique guitar playing style — he really married punk to avantgarde jazz in a way few other players could, or cared to — and that, at the band's peak, the showmanship of Henry Rollins complemented Ginn's guitar fireworks to perfection. Their discography is quite varied, which is both a blessing (few things are more irritating than a lengthy discography from a generic hardcore band) and a curse, because some of Ginn's experimentation sounds downright stupid these days, but at least there's something in there for everyone. Possible starting point: Damaged (1981) is the acknowledged classic and one of the most revered punk albums of the decade, so there is no question about where to start. From there on, you're on your own — read the reviews, and trust your instincts.
☺Blind Guardian: These German purveyors of speed, power, and fantasy metal have been so relentless in honing their skills at Bombast-A-Rama that even those who hate pomp and pretense in pop music with all their might will have to admit a certain level of respect for the hard-to-beat lionine roar of Hansi Kürsch or the melodic gift of lead guitarist André Olbrich. Those who love their pop music grand, arrogant, and exciting will have a never ending aural feast with these guys, though — especially those who also have a soft spot for Tolkien, Stephen King, and Dungeons and Dragons. Their basic goals have remained pretty much unchanged since the very beginning, but the style has evolved from a more speed-oriented and brutal-metallic onslaught in the early days to a more symphonic, «melodic» sound as the years went by; depending on this, most fans will probably have their hearts yearning for the former or the latter. Possible starting point: Imaginations From The Other Side (1995) represents fair middle ground between earlier, harsher B. G. and later, «orchestral» B. G.; start here, perhaps, and then move away backwards or forwards depending on which aspects you find more to your liking, if any.
☺Blondie: The greatest «pop-rock» band of the New Wave era that ever lived — although the very name of the band and its image, with frontvixen Debbie Harry always at the center of attention and the rest of the members always intentionally lurking in the shadows, often leads to misguided interpretations: general audiences think of Blondie in the same category as Donna Summer and Chic (due to the disco attractiveness of ʽHeart Of Glassʼ), and «intellectual» audiences sometimes dismiss them for the same reason. DON'T! These guys were smart, sharp, tasteful, diverse, and dynamic: their classic albums belong on the shelf of everybody who has no aversion towards pop music in general, and likes one's own pop music with a grain of salt and a touch of spice. Even when they crossed over into the 1980s, got a bit darker and more depressed, they did not begin to suck — it's just that they were so tightly associated with liveliness and springliness that nobody wanted to take any of that gloomy crap from their favorite band. Even when the band regrouped in the late 1990s, this was done under the condition that they would not become a nostalgia act, but would bravely try to saddle and harness the ongoing processes in pop music — to mixed effect, unfortunately, given the overall awful state of pop music in the 2000s, but still, at least theoretically admirable in spirit. Possible starting point: Parallel Lines (1978) is an indisputable classic and an acknowledged milestone in the history of pop, yet this is a band that deserves to be studied through and through, so I'd personally recommend to start right from the self-titled Blondie (1976) and work your way from there.
☻Bon Jovi: There may be no single better example in the history of music to prove that «long-term popularity» and «accessibility» are not always a good thing. From the very beginning, Jon Bon Jovi and his pals made it clear that first and foremost, they were after mass popularity — mega-mass popularity — and that the best way to ensure that popularity was the KISSS formula: «Keep It Simple, Stupid, and Serious». After all, you cannot deny that the one major difference that separates ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ from something like ʽRock And Roll All Nightʼ is in that additional S: headbanging to ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ makes you imagine that you are not just headbanging — you are headbanging for a spiritual cause. For almost thirty years now, Bon Jovi, equipped with just a few drops of talent, have been bottling cheap spirituality for the masses, and doing fairly well for themselves in the process. Which, in this reviewer's eyes at least, makes them one of the most fascinatingly disgusting acts in the entire pop/rock business. Possible starting point: With a band like this, it only makes sense to start with the officially acknowledged cornerstone of their legacy — Slippery When Wet (1986), whose key track at least features the most creative gimmick in their history of music-making (the talkbox grunt, of course).
○ Boomtown Rats, The: Although the only song by these guys that has solidly entered public conscience is arguably ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ, they used to be commercially successful, regularly putting hit singles on the charts in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Ironically, even though they are usually listed as a «punk/New Wave» act, The Boomtown Rats were really at their best when doing straightforward, ballsy rock'n'roll, delivered with plenty of guts, spittle, and humor by their pair of guitarists and potentially mesmerizing frontman Bob Geldof. The more they strayed away from rock'n'roll and into the risky waters of synth-pop, though, the more they tended to look like copycats of their betters — and then there's the matter of Geldof's own transformation from ruffled street-rock hero into the closest thing the world has ever seen to a real planet-saving Superman: the more wonderful he became as a sensitive, self-sacrificing human being, the more boring he got as a musician. Alas, this inevitably happens to the best of us. Possible starting point: A Tonic For The Troops (1978) — the perfect transition album from «classic rock» to «New Wave», with just the right combination of brawns and brain from these guys and probably their best song ever (ʽRat Trapʼ).
○ Boston: Tom Scholz may have been a genius of technology, a wizard of guitar tone, and a self-standing self-made cultural hero, but none of that mattered when it came to taste and intelligence, of which he could only muster enough for one classic album, which most classic rock radio listeners know by heart without ever having bought a copy. Give the man his due — he pretty much invented the default understanding of «arena rock»... in a basement, and that's gotta count for something. But do not give the man more than his due, and unless you are a mad completist, do not bother with anything Boston-related past the 1970s. Whoever you are, your ears deserve better than rote, formulaic, monotonous, grossly overproduced and overdramatized pomp. Possible starting point: Boston (1976) is and will always be one of the all-time classics — love or hate that style, the mastership cannot be denied. Beyond there lies nothing, even if there are occasional enthusiasts who also root for the band's second album.
○ Bruford: In between the 1973-1974 and the 1981-1984 marks of King Crimson, prog drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford happened to lead his own band, producing three albums that, in a better world, might have been of certain interest to fans of groundbreaking progressive rock, but as it happens, can be only of limited interest to fans of that rather self-sufficient, off-the-cuff genre called «jazz-rock fusion». For the most part, this is professional, but bland and uninventive fusion with no particular place to go — the only exception being the band's first album, Feels Good To Me (1977), which had an actual «symphonic» strain to it and featured a dazzling assortment of guests to provide both spice and substance, including the enigmatic and underrated singer-songwriter Annette Peacock.
☺Buggles: Not only did Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes announce the coming of the «Video Age» with a conveniently concocted title to their biggest hit, but they pretty much laid down the basic rules for intelligent commercial synth-pop — songs that could be maddeningly catchy, impossibly modern, and yet also composed with care and inspiration. Of course, even if one perceives the irony of the lyrics and the whole approach (using the latest trendiest technologies to deplore the fate of a world overwhelmed with technology), some of the music may seem off-putting because of the overall «cheesiness» of the arrangements, hooks, and vocals; but the Buggles were one of the very few bands who seem to have been perfectly aware of this from the very beginning, and took themselves firmly tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, they only stuck around for one pop masterpiece before participating in one of the weirdest musical mergers in history (with Yes, no less, proving that you can marry any two musical genres on the map with at least some success), and when they came back for a second, much less satisfactory album, it was already too late to carry on the Buggles program. Forget ʽVideo Killed The Radio Starʼ, though — ʽJohnny On The Monorailʼ is really where it's at. Possible starting point: The Age Of Plastic (1980) is, by all means, the one and only place to start with these guys.
☺Butthole Surfers: The good old American underground has churned out plenty of weird bands in its lifetime — so much, in fact, that it is almost impossible in this here 21st century to understand what really constitutes «weird» any more — but Butthole Surfers were definitely one of the leading brands of «weird» for about a decade, from their early messy noise-punk days in the early Eighties to the more organized, glossy, yet still deliciously wild sound of the early Nineties, when for a very brief time they almost seemed poised for overground popularity, even despite retaining the word «butthole» in their group name. The common association is with Gibby Haynes, the band's crazy frontman who looked and sounded like a post-modern take on Iggy Pop or a less seriously self-centered take on Birthday Party-era Nick Cave — however, the band's musical attractions stay mostly with Paul Leary, a terrific guitar player who seemed to be much more inspired by Hendrix and Syd Barrett than by the contemporary heavy metal or alt-rock crowds, and was equally gifted with the ability to churn out cool retro-riffs and make deliciously fuzzy psychedelic noise. The band kind of lost direction by the end of the millennium, losing a large part of its youthful energy and hooliganry, but those early albums still hold up in all their hilariousness and recklessness. And yes, they're a musical band first and foremost — like Zappa, they consider intentionally «offensive» content as their legitimate shield from idiots and amateurs, but behind that shield, they can rock your heart out, though for what it's worth, I probably wouldn't ever call them «master tunesmiths» (they seem far more skilled at running rings around other people's ideas than generating their own, but that, too, is an art that requires major skill). Possible starting point: Locust Abortion Technician (1987) is arguably their most (dis)cohesive statement, but if you want to dip your foot into something easier first, Independent Worm Saloon (1993) is probably their best compromise between «madness» and «accessibility».
☺Buzzcocks: The most direct British equivalent of the Ramones — this is punk rock, yes, but with a personal rather than social orientation, and with more emphasis on catchy vocal and instrumental hooks than anger, loudness, and abrasiveness. Over a short span of no more than three years, the Buzzcocks left behind an impressive legacy of punchy, pointy songs that are all but impossible to get out of your head — and they weren't above experimenting with various adjacent genres, either, though they never truly made the transition into «New Wave» (perhaps, for the better). Fortunately, they had the good sense to disband before the Eighties caught up with them and imposed their absurd standards; unfortunately, Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle decided it appropriate to bring the band back into existence once the grunge wave hit both shores of the Atlantic, feeding us a steady stream of mediocre-to-poor releases for more than ten years. Most informed people will probably tell you to embrace as much classic-era Buzzcocks as possible, and stay away from the reunion era — and, surprise surprise, I am one of these people, too (although their latest, The Way, wasn't too bad, honestly). Possible starting point: There's no getting around it — the Buzzcocks were the late Seventies' greatest «singles band», and the Singles Going Steady (1979) compilation has been, and always will be, the most resplendent monument to their greatness. However, all of the three early LPs are worth getting as well — without them, you will never know the full potential and scope of these guys at their peak.
○ 808 State: These imaginative Mancunians used to be one of the hottest things in the entire electronic movement; today, they are mostly mentioned as «a primary influence on Aphex Twin» (not that one day Richard D. James will not suffer the same fate — fame and fortune are fairly fleeting flimsies when we're talking digital art). Still, if you are into «intelligent dance music» at all, 808 State are an indispensable component of the genre, and much more human (and «humanistic») than so many others. Possible starting point: Newbuild (1988).
○ Aaliyah: Her sweetness and «innocence» make her R'n'B listenable, and her collaboration with Timbaland make some of it interesting. But, at the end of it all, her tragedy will not make her the Aretha of 1990s. Possible starting point: One In A Million (1996).
○ Afghan Whigs, The: These Cincinnati kids originally relocated to Seattle just in time to be jumped on the grunge bandwagon, but they made their critical reputation not so much by mastering the official grunge textbook as by interbreeding grunge with singer-songwriter introspection and soul/R'n'B influences, mainly courtesy of the artistic soul of frontman Greg Dulli. Songwriting was always a big problem, though. Possible starting point: Gentlemen (1993) has the best combination of «Whig essence» and interesting melodies, but the much more deviating 1965 (1998) is arguably their most original contribution to the world of rock'n'roll.
☺Aimee Mann: Just my idea of a perfect female singer-songwriter: melodicity, beautiful voice, non-overbearing, but meaningful lyrics, consistency, humor — all in limited, but sufficient doses. Possible starting point: Bachelor No. 2 (2000).
○ AIR: Kings of French elevator music. One exemplary record of the genre plus an endless series of attempts to improve upon it, always leaving you pleased and dissatisfied at the same time. Possible starting point: Moon Safari (1998).
☻Alanis Morissette: Mediocre talent, overall nice girl, inadequate success, confused heritage, awful horse grin (especially when she was in her prime), good set of pipes, too few good songs, made history, currently unmaking it. Possible starting point: Jagged Little Pill (1995).
☺Alice In Chains: Seattle has seen plenty of grunge bands, but not one has combined metallic chops, pop catchiness, and the suicidal horror of drug addiction in a more intelligent and exciting manner than the late Layne Staley and the not-too-late Jerry Cantrell. Easily the most terrifying band of the 1990s, and thus, probably not for everybody's ears. Possible starting point: Dirt (1992).
○ Amon Tobin: One of the most tirelessly experimental electronic wizards of our time, the Brazilian-born Amon Adonai Santos de Araujo Tobin (or just Cujo for short) made his name as an awesome mediator between the arts of drum'n'bass and old-school jazz, creating a sound so unique, it's a total wonder it managed to be accessible at the same time. Since then, he's branched out in a variety of sonic directions, but, to the best of my predictive power, it is the «Miles Davis meets Squarepusher» vibe that he is going to be remembered for. Possible starting point: Supermodified (2000).
○ Amorphis: Even in the middle of the overproductive Scandinavian / Finnish death metal scene, in the mid-1990s Amorphis stood out loud and proud — starting out as a competent, but generic death metal band, then morphing (sorry!) into a largely unpredictable, archi-creative prog-metal unit, concocting a melting pot of folk, jazz, and symphonic influences, bonud by fresh metal riffs and a great sense of taste. Unfortunately, ever since the late 1990s they have been moving into duller directions, corrupting themselves with alt-rock sludge and evolving into formula. Be, therefore, very wary with what you pick. Possible starting point: Elegy (1996), then proceed in both directions from there, stopping at will.
○ Anathema: Jury still out.
○ Änglågård: Motivated, inspired, but hugely derivative Swedish revivalists of the classic 1970's prog rock of Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, you name it. Their flaws are obvious and evident, but with a brief legacy encompassing two studio and one live albums, they simply didn't have time to make them overwhelm the positives. Possible starting point: Hybris (1992).
○ Angra: Brazilian gods of power metal, who started off well enough in the mid-Nineties by trying to merge the genre with all sorts of outside influences, from symphonic to Brazilian folk. Then they lost their best member and became... just a regular power metal band, of potential interest to power metal fans. Possible starting point: Holy Land (1996).
☻Ani DiFranco: This Earth-dwelling Valkyrie of Civil Liberties is an inexhaustible source of flaming spirits. In compensation, her progenitors forgot to endow her with a proper songwriting talent, but she has solved the problem by writing so much that it is actually possible to make a full length CD of quality stuff culled from over 15 hour-long records. She used to be a great guitar player, too, but coincidentally abandoned her unique style at the same time that she gave up on trying to write decent music. Most transparent argument ever that music and political / social agenda should be eating from different tables. Possible starting point: Dilate (1996).
☺ Aphex Twin: As often as one gets depictions of Richard D. James as the intangible Zeus of the Electronic Olympus, he might still rather be its Hermes, the trickster clown: he has mastered the craft so well that, instead of bowing down to his equipment, he condescends to it, and you never really know how serious the guy is. Also, he may or may not be a genius, but he is definitely one of the most creative-idea-packed people of the turn of the century era, so it is essential to at least try him out even if electronic music generally leaves you cold. Possible starting point: Richard D. James Album (1996).
○ Apoptygma Berzerk: The brainchild of pale-faced Norwegian lunatic Stephan Groth; the band (essentially, one-man band with various session hands coming and going) has slowly evolved from a mix of industrial, Goth, and synth-pop to a relatively unsophisticated brand of art-techno to a somewhat more interesting style of electropop, and is still evolving. Groth has some sort of tricky proto-emo appeal and an odd knack of improving upon bad or passable Eighties' hits, for which he deserves my respect; he also has a serious fan base among worshippers of «electronic body music», but this detail is of little interest to me. Possible starting point: You And Me Against The World (2005), but for more «typical» A. B., Soli Deo Gloria (1993) is a much more informative introduction.
☺ Apples In Stereo, The: These guys' long strange trip began under the banner of resurrecting the cheerful pop-psychedelic spirit of the Sixties (in a modernized indie format) and ended up as a never ending, mathematically grounded tribute to a whole series of Rob Schneider's musical heroes (Jeff Lynne is the latest in line). One has to appreciate the dedication: they took it so seriously that, somewhere along the way, they even learned to write good songs. Possible starting point: The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone (2000).
○ Arab Strap: Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton were a Scottish duo that based an entire career on writing long, dark, monotonous, impressionistic electro-folk tales based around drinking and fucking as the top two activities for modern day young people. Eventually, they grew up, realized there's more to life than this and ended their partnership on a somewhat more optimistic note. Their career is fun to trace, but not so much fun to enjoy, unless you are really ready to empathise. They do somewhat sound like no one else, though. Possible starting point: Mad For Sadness (1999).
○ Arch Enemy: The product of creative brothers Michael and Christopher Amott, Arch Enemy are a «melodic death metal» band from Sweden, originally notable simply for a quick progress from completely generic act to one of the genre's most reliable dazzling riff providers. Then they changed their lead growler for Angela Gossow and became notable as «that band with the hot chick who claims direct descent from Lucifer». Eventually, they sort of degenerated to the level of a very limited formula, like almost all metal bands do, but at the height of their powers, they did deliver a small bunch of classic records that might be of interest to everyone who can stand a little heavy music with growling vocals. Possible starting point: Burning Bridges (1999) probably has the best songs, but for those who, like me, much prefer to be charmed by Gossow, Wages Of Sin (2001) would be preferable.
○ Archers Of Loaf: For a brief moment in the mid-Nineties, these guys were quite a hot thing on college rock radio stations; but ever since they fell apart, they have been generally relegated to «connoisseur delight» status. But this is not because their brand of grunge-based indie rock stemmed from the East Coast (Chapel Hill) rather than the obligatory Northwest. Rather, it is because they placed more emphasis on «ambiguity», «intelligence», and «artsiness» than on in-yer-face hooks and on sentiments with which the average teen could connect on an easy and regular basis. That said, I could not say that any of the band members had any tremendous musical gifts; at best, they could develop a curious «guitar-weaving» technique that made them stand out from the pack, but that is not always enough to make an appropriately great song. Still, a band well worth getting to know if you're a young romantic intellectual with a spiteful nature. Possible starting point: Icky Mettle (1994) is their acclaimed debut, but it is not my fav — anyway, they only have four studio albums out in toto, and each has its moments.
○ Ash: Ireland's biggest gift to «alternative rock». The leader, Tim Wheeler, seems like a talented guy, hopelessly chained down by the «rock» conventions — most Ash records are very frustrating, because they always sound like they could have been so much better without the compressed, stiffening production, and the forced emphasis on loudness, distortion, and power chords, when, at heart, Wheeler is really just an old-school roots-rock and guitar-pop fan with a big old heart. Possible starting point: A-Z Series (2010) – I think the band actually got much better as the years went by, and their decision to switch from LP format to an ongoing series of single releases was a great move, allowing to reduce the amounts of filler. But if you demand an LP as the starting point, then Free All Angels (2001) is the poppiest and bestest of 'em all.
○ At The Drive-In: Legendary heroes of Texan «post-hardcore», these progenitors of the far more interesting Mars Volta made their mark on rock history with a small batch of highly challenging albums, and I am still not sure if the challenge was all that justified. Energy, passion, intelligence, and loud distorted guitars are all there, but songwriting has always been these guys' biggest problem. Possible starting point: Relationship Of Command (2000) is their most diverse and «accessible» album — if it hits you, work your way backwards from there, if it doesn't, it is probably recommendable to stay away from the earlier, even more sparse records.
○ Atheist: «Tech death metal» from Florida, these guys made three albums in the late 1980s / early 1990s that made a small, but stern group of admirers and critics very happy — with a synthesis of thrash / death metal clichés (speed, heaviness, apocalyptic vibe, growling vocals, the works) and elements of modern jazz / Latin melodicity and unpredictability. This «intellectualized» version of moshpit fury is, at worst, curious, and at best, fascinating. Recently reformed, but no longer all that fresh or interesting, stick to the early days. Possible starting point: Unquestionable Presence (1991) is usually selected as the high watermark, although, personally, it wearies me out quicker than the slightly more subdued and diverse Elements (1993).
○ Autechre: The electronic pride of Manchester — Autechre consists of Rob Brown and Sean Booth, who have made it their life's work to combine the essence of ambient, industrial, and free-form avantgarde music inside the small brain of a microchip and conjure the illusion that it is the microchip itself that is operating the brain. If listening to early Autechre is like walking through the robot-operated factories of the Snow Queen, then «mature» Autechre is the soundtrack to the busy life of veteran nanites hurrying for the nanorobot race. Unfortunately, since most of this music operates on the intellectual rather than emotional level, and is best enjoyed in the company of a Stephen Hawking bestseller, there is quite a bit of redundancy in the Autechre catalog, to say the least. Possible starting point: Tri Repetae (1995) is probably the best summary of early Autechre; Confield (2001) is for the truly adventurous hero who likes his Modern Art with serious French fries and bacon on the side.
☺Auteurs, The: Really only just one auteur: well-educated, misanthropic, highly ambitious Brit kid Luke Haines, feigning an actual «band» with a little help from his friends. Sometimes hailed as being among the first — and unjustly unsung — heroes of Britpop, The Auteurs are not so much about breaking musical barriers (although the music is always careful enough to avoid the boring clichés of «alt-rock») as they are about being a launchpad for Haines' «auteur vision»: if you feel partial to his confused / confusing mix of snobbery, world-hatred, and nostalgia for the blessed times when art seemed to be changing the world, you will love all of The Auteurs' catalog (not to mention Luke's subsequent projects). If you are only in it for the chord changes, well... this is passable, not unpleasant Nineties' electric pop with cello overtones. Possible starting point: New Wave (1993) is The Auteurs at their freshest, and then just proceed from there until you get enough — four albums ain't that much of a catalog, anyway.
○ Ayreon: Sometimes mistaken for an actual «band», Ayreon is really the artistic moniker of Arjen Lucassen, an eccentric Dutch guy specializing in prog-metal fantasies. What sets him apart from hundreds of similar acts is ambition: Lucassen's goal is to become the Wagner of rock music, and for almost two decades he has been steadily hammering out his «Ring» — huge, sprawling prog-metal operas, each one stretched over 2 CDs and featuring guest vocalists from every symph- or power-metal band to have ever walked the Earth. Accusing this guy of cheesiness is like accusing cheese of cheesiness — whether you will be able to see his good sides behind the cheese is a different, much more complex, matter. Possible starting point: Universal Migrator (2000) is probably his peak, particularly the progressive-oriented Pt. 1, not so much the metal-oriented Pt. 2 — but when each following album so very consciously tries to «outpeak» its predecessor, it is hard to speak in terms of highs and lows.
○ Babes In Toyland: Along with Hole, this other pack of «kinderwhores», led by Kat Bjelland, heavily added to the overall glory of Minneapolis in the early 1990s. Without any particular instrumental or songwriting talent to their name, they mostly depended on sheer energy and Kat's sometimes genuinely scary ability to rise to ever new levels of heavy rock hysteria — at their best, they were like the perfect 1990s band to vent one's frustration to, particularly if you were a girl, and in some way, some of their stuff (usually the fast, chuggy ones without delving too deep into the mystery of one's sexual nature) still sounds fresh today. For a band that only released three proper LPs they do have quite a bit of filler, though. Possible starting point: Spanking Machine (1990), released just before the grunge craze hit and made them «sludgify» their sound, has most of the best songs, even though Fontanelle (1992) was a bigger critical and commercial hit.
○ Bardo Pond: Roll shoegaze, stoner rock, and ambient into one lump, soak it in psychedelic sauce, and what you have is Bardo Pond, Philadelphia's musical gift to the world of dangerous chemical substances. For the most part, these guys specialize in lengthy, sprawling sonic scapes that allegedly represent direct musical equivalents of tripping — meaning that most of their albums are generally interchangeable, although the early ones are still more recommendable due to the freshness of approach. Possible starting point: Amanita (1996) is arguably their most critically recognized effort, so why not go along?
○ Barenaked Ladies: This occasionally delightful, but just as frequently annoying Canadian nerd-rock outfit elicits decidedly mixed feelings. At their best, Steve Page and Ed Robertson, the band's driving force, could crank out smart, funny, educated, and fairly catchy folk-pop and power-pop tunes on par with the best singer-songwriters of the 1990s. However, already at a very early stage in the band's career, they became so afraid of getting pigeonholed into the «pop joker» category, along with They Might Be Giants and the rest of them, that they launched a «maturation» process — learning how to write deadly serious and deadly boring alt-rock and adult contemporary material (still loaded with thoughtful and creative lyrics so that the critical press could be properly sucked up to). This essentially means that, for every great Barenaked Ladies power pop anthem, there is a comparably awful Barenaked Ladies «roots-rocker» — listener beware, unless said listener, like so many high school and college kids in the early 1990s, grew up with the Ladies as a fashion icon; for everybody else, I am afraid, most of their stuff will be anything but timeless. Possible starting point: Gordon (1992) illustrates their «quirky» side best of all — start there and proceed with caution; I would advise focusing on subsequent «quirky» albums, like Stunt and Maroon, rather than the «serious» stuff, and definitely recommend forgetting about the band altogether upon the departure of Page after Snacktime! (2008).
○ Bark Psychosis: A strange combo, essentially a one-man band (with a bunch of rotating collaborators) represented by enigmatic British visionary Graham Sutton who, if you like to stick to critical exaggerations, singlehandedly invented «post-rock» circa 1994. Well, not really: what he really did was take the grand vision of Talk Talk's Mark Hollis and scale it down to a somewhat more humbly, more homely state, making music that may easily sound deadly boring one minute and deeply penetrating the next one. On the whole, I would assess anybody's chances at enjoying or abhorring this shapeless synthesis of soft rock, smooth jazz, dark folk, and electronica around 50/50, but give it a try anyway — they only have had two complete albums out in three decades, anyway, which is a rather respectable feat: with this kind of formula, less demanding artists could have slapped out a new boring record every six months or so. Possible starting point: Hex (1994) has, indeed, been the album to have caused the appearance of the term «post-rock», so it's well worth getting to know at least for historical purposes.
☺Beck: This guy is honestly amazing — one of the best songwr... er, visionaries of his generation, I'd say. Few people have been more successful in meaningfully synthesizing «old school» musical directions, from pre-war blues and folk to Sixties' pop and psychedelia, with the hip 'n' cool urban culture of the 1990s and beyond. It is all the more fascinating that the man's individual strengths are almost negligible (he is a mediocre instrumentalist, a technically poor singer, and a copycat melody writer), yet in the end, his creativity and gift for self-expression know no limits, especially when he teams up with helpful producers like the Dust Brothers (to create head-spinning party grooves) or Nigel Godrich (to wallow in self-pity and bring on the end of the world). Possible starting point: I'd advise to bypass the early «anti-folk» rehearsal crap and start right off with Mellow Gold (1994) and then go all the way to the end — most of the man's albums do not repeat themselves, although it is not highly likely you will love all of them equally.
☺Belle And Sebastian: Another bunch of melancholic, but friendly Scottish people, led by the mildly autistic, isolationist musical persona of Steve Murdoch and featuring an assortment of chamber pop players with great taste in arrangements. Over the years, Murdoch has gradually grown from «that little kid sitting doodling in the back of the class while the big bullies run the world around him» to «that grown-up little kid who is now waging his war with the bullies from a position of increased self-confidence», as the music of Belle & Sebastian made a jump from moody chamber-folk to a more upbeat and ironic style of power-pop, and chances are that you might easily get to like «early B&S» but not «late B&S», or vice versa. Possible starting point: for the early period, the universally acclaimed masterpiece is If You're Feeling Sinister (1996), but if you are in the mood for additional diversity and ringing electric guitar melodies, I'd recommend beginning with Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2004) instead.
☺Ben Folds (Five): Ben Folds is a nice little guy from North Carolina who has managed to invent a pretty nifty format for himself in the 1990s — his band, The Ben Folds Five, was actually a «power trio» with a piano-playing rather than guitar-tooting frontman, that-a-way, combining the piano pop legacy of Elton John and Billy Joel with the versatility of Cream. In their prime, the Five were unstoppable — Ben Folds churned out mighty pop hooks and imbued them with modern irony, whereas the rhythm section supplied some of the most monstruous energy ever heard in «sissy pop» music. Things went downhill when the trio split up: Ben was able to carry on as a «mature» solo artist for some time, but gradually, his hooks became mushy, and his introspective lyrics and atmospheres became repetitive. By the time the band decided to reunite (circa 2012), it seems to have been too late to start all over again, but while they're still at it, some hope does remain. Possible starting point: Whatever & Ever Amen (1997) probably showcases the original band's strengths more concisely than any other album, although, to be honest, all three of their original albums are minor classics in their own rights.
○ Beth Orton: This British singer-songwriter, a little too refined for her own good, started out strong as one of the chief figures in the «folktronica» movement — not exactly the female Beck, but, with the help of a few good friends (like William Orbit), she was able to combine folk-based singer-songwriting craft with creative digital arrangements, merging past and future in an enjoyable and respectable fashion. Then pride and purism got the better of her, and throughout the 21st century she has been reinventing herself as a quintessential folk-based songwriter. Unfortunately, her composing, playing, and singing talents are not exceptional, and unless her later records were to be your very first acquaintance with folk-rock as such, chances are that you will be bored stiff rather than deeply moved with them. Possible starting point: Perversely enough, my favorite record of hers is SuperPinkyMandy (1993), the most electronic-sounding album she'd ever put out and later on, disowned and thrown out of print by Beth herself; if you are afraid to go along with such an iconoclastic preference, Trailerpark (1996) is the obvious choice to start before the strong sides of the lady start dwindling away and the weak sides begin taking over.
○ Bettie Serveert: Critically acclaimed, but forever-underground Dutch indie rock band. Smart, pretentious, sometimes annoyingly hip leading lady Carol van Dijk serves as its main attraction, along with not-too-original, but extremely competent, diverse, and tasteful lead guitar player Peter Visser. The band's discography suffers from a tendency to produce underwritten material, distinguished by a «look at us, we're so Neil Young» or «look at us, we're so Lou Reed» or «look at us, we're so Joni Mitchell» feel — but in between all the second-hand imitations, there lurks a genuine spirit, and every now and then, they show they can master the form-to-substance match as good as anyone. Possible starting point: With a band of this kind, it makes sense to start at the very beginning, which is Palomine (1992). From there on, it really depends on whether you manage to establish an emotional link with Carol's vibe. If you do not, leave them be, but before you do, do check out Oh, Mayhem (2013) — the band at its poppiest and least pretentious.
○ Beulah: Loosely tied up with the «Elephant 6» collective in form and strongly in spirit, this band was the brainchild of San Franciscans Mike Kurosky (who provided most of the writing and ideological marrow) and Bill Swan (who... uh... played most of the trumpet parts) and its purpose was to take over the world by restoring its musical preferences to the Beatles, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, Love, and just a little Pink Floyd, while at the same time making the music more artistically palatable to the cool tastes of cool contemporary audiences. The result was a string of albums that boast some of the lushest and tastiest sound in late 1990s / early 2000s art-pop. Unfortunately, Kurosky's songwriting genius never quite managed to match the undeniable strength of his love for his musical idols, and ultimately, Beulah failed at finding their own face and letting the people understand what it was exactly that they added to that old legacy — at least, such is my conception of these guys, loosely supported by the fact that they spent most of their time struggling to capture their market, and finally dissolved when it became clear that no one was buying their stuff. Great form — questionable substance. Possible starting point: I think they came closest to «meaningful» music with their third album, The Coast Is Never Clear (2001), which might be the most rational place to start with them. If you find it too pretentious or too phoney, though, don't even try bothering with the rest.
○ Bikini Kill: Leaders of the «riot grrrrl» movement, these girls (and one guy!) pretty much embodied the whole «feminist punk» idea in the first half of the 1990s, being so aggressive and ideologically supercharged that they even had the balls to denounce Courtney Love as a phoney (well, she was, wasn't she?). Rudimentary musicianship implied that the band positioned themselves as socially conscious rabble-rousers rather than «artists», but that did not prevent them from evolving — where the first songs are loud, noisy, hysterical, and amateurish, eventually they would start moving into more melodic territory. Unfortunately, that evolution also made them implode already after their second LP, just as they were getting ready to expand their ideological palette to include a bit of music, just for a change. Possible starting point: Anywhere, given that their discography is so short. The second LP should be more «listenable» from the average music lover's viewpoint, but Pussy Whipped (1993) is certainly far more «quintessential» as far as letting one hear what these gals were really all about.
☺Björk: One of the greatest and most unique talents of the 1990s, Björk's transition into the 21st century has been rather lackluster in comparison — but this is only because anything will seem lackluster next to the string of spectacular masterpieces that this curious Icelandic sprite had created at her peak. Like so many other idiosyncratic great ones, from Bob Dylan to Kate Bush, her music and image usually provoke extreme forms of adoration or extreme syndromes of irritation, but there is no denying that she brought a hitherto unknown style of artistic expression to the decade, taking full advantage of her genetic oddities (the voice and the mind) to amaze us at a time when we'd thought we'd seen and heard it all, mostly. Her ideas on songwriting, arranging, and mixing that odd voice in with the acoustic and electronic textures have all entered the golden textbook, but above all that, there is also a seductive human component — the feel of the idealistic, uncorrupted human being reveling in the wonders of the world — that converts all the bizarreness and uniqueness into genius. Sadly, this has somehow deteriorated in the last decades as her fame seems to have gotten the better of her, but who really judges a genius on the basis of his/her failures? Possible starting point: From Debut (1993) and right up to Vespertine (2001), Björk is unstoppable, and each album has its own face; later on, proceed at your own risk.
☺Black Box Recorder: One out of several «same basic idea, widely different execution» projects of Bitter Brit Luke Haines, this one lasted for about five years and involved the cooperation of former Jesus and Mary Chain member John Moore and ice-cold, lovely and deadly Sarah Nixey as the principal vocal channel through which Haines and Moore poured their misanthropic and claustrophobic sentiments, as well as their love-and-hate relationship with the United Kingdom. Their legacy is relatively small — three original LPs and one more of leftovers — but most of it is priceless: catchy, shivery, beautiful, and creepy art-pop songs, with imaginative acoustic, electric, and electronic arrangements and an unforgettable vocal tone that seeps under your skin like refrigerant from a deliberately out-of-order air cooler. Rarely has steaming bile been delivered with such seductive grace; unfortunately, for that very reason this is one of those bands which, although perfectly accessible, will never be too popular among the general crowds. But then, I guess you're not from the general crowd anyway, are you, Mr. Reader? Possible starting point: England Made Me (1998) is their first and arguably their best, but there is no sense whatsoever in not getting acquainted with the rest of their catalog, since each following album has a musical character of its own.
○ Black Crowes: In the late 1980s, these guys emerged to cleverly occupy an empty niche — old school blues-rock and roots-rock, played with plenty of old-school dirt, sleaze, distortion, and irreverence: the «bad retro boys» of rock'n'roll music, quite a sight for the sore eyes of the baby boomer musical press. On the surface, the Robinson brothers and their team certainly qualify, but their main problem is not even in lacking proper musical genius (as songwriters, I would never place them within a mile of Aerosmith or Lynyrd Skynyrd, let alone the Stones or Led Zep): their main problem is the extremely conscious «revivalist» attitude, as they have always seemed to revere and sanctify the past, much like the Greenwich Village purists did with folk music in the pre-Dylan era. Subsequently, I can't help it if I have always found their stuff excruciatingly boring on the average — they have a handful of accidental successes, all right, but on the whole, they seem like perfect proof of the statement that you can admire the past, but you cannot truly bring it back. Possible starting point: The first two or three albums are usually extolled as «certified classics», but the single largest amount of good songs they wrote, I think, is contained on By Your Side (1999) — a controversial decision on my part, yet it wouldn't hurt to check out this overlooked album in addition to acquainting yourself with the Rolling Stone recommendations.
○ Blackmore's Night: His Deep Purple and Rainbow days behind him, Ritchie Blackmore finally discovered his one and only true self: playing Renaissance-inspired folk-pop behind the back (and ample bosom) of lady Candice Night, a former Long Island resident who went from Blackmore fan to Blackmore partner to Blackmore spouse over a period of twenty years. Together, they have already released close to a dozen records, all of them very similar in style, covering old and contemporary material as well as writing quasi-original tunes with the sole purpose of using them as entertainment for the dinner guests of King Henry VIII. As a rule, it's all very corny-sounding, and should never be taken for the real thing — Blackmore's Night strive for fantasy amusement, not for «authenticity»; keeping that in mind, the early albums do have some catchy tunes on them, and Candice Night is always mildly pleasant in her delivery, though never truly outstanding. Possible starting point: Fires At Midnight (2001) arguably has the largest percentage of catchy and / or inventive numbers; you might want to define the number of further BN albums you want to hear relative to the excitement level generated by the title track, or ʽHome Againʼ.
☺Blur: One of the flashiest symbols of «Britpop» in the 1990s, Blur wrote some of the best songs of the decade without being particularly innovative — from Madchester influences to shoegaze influences to early Britpoppers like Suede to American indie-rock heroes like Sonic Youth, they thrived on swallowing other people's ideas and reworking them in a more accessible, enjoyable, and meaningful way (much like the Beatles, don't you think?). With Damon «Mick Jagger» Albarn serving as their primary billboardish, hipper-than-hip attraction, and Graham «Keith Richards» Coxon generally supplying the no-bull melodic basis for the songs, they were virtually unstoppable in both their «British» phase and their «Americanized» one — that is, before Coxon quit and the band dragged on through one more album on flash power alone, no substance. In the late 2000s, they got back together, but looks like that glorious decade won't be recaptured in any way any time soon. Possible starting point: Parklife (1994) usually holds the maximum amount of votes for the most quintessential Blur album, but really, this is one of those bands where it wouldn't hurt to check out the entire catalog, even including their weakest albums that bookmark their career from both ends (Leisure and Think Tank).
○ Boards Of Canada: Scotland's national banner of electronic pride — two guys with plenty of circuits who made themselves look really big in the 1990s by integrating club beats, fuzzy ambient soundscapes, and a flashy modern art philosophy that somehow linked it all to memories of childhood, campfires, and other «natural» stuff. Personally, I find them tremendously overrated, their artistic synthesis mostly inefficient, and their music more often boring than not («elevator electronics»), yet somehow, they actually managed to push the appropriate buttons at the time, ensuring themselves a solid place in the electronic pantheon of the 1990s — go figure, I will probably never understand the tricky laws of functioning that apply in this electronic business. Possible starting point: Music Has The Right To Children (1998) is «generally acknowledged» to be their masterpiece, but their only record to which I found myself warming up at least partially was The Campfire Headphase (2005), where they found a quirky, novel way of marrying their electronics to acoustic and electric guitars — naturally, they never expanded on that synthesis and soon returned to their old boring ways.
☺Boo Radleys, The: These Brits originally appeared on the intersection of the shoegazing wave and the Madchester wave, combining dreamy-fuzzy atmospherics with metronomic funky dancebeats, but never managing to override the success or vision of My Bloody Valentine. Eventually, under the guidance of chief songwriter Martin Carr and his ghostly-crooner-style vocally endowed partner Sice, they ended up casting off the dark cloak and revealing their secret — namely, that, like so many other people, they wanted to be The Beatles of the 1990s. Whether they actually had the balls to carry out the promise is debatable (critical and popular opinion are vastly divided), but the scope of their musical searching and the quality of their songwriting steadily improved up to the very end, when, disillusioned with relative lack of popular success, the Boos finally called it a day. Not a «great» group by any means, but a significant chapter in the history of UK music in the 1990s nonetheless. Possible starting point: somewhat contrary to the general consensus, I consider Kingsize (1998), their last record, to be their most fully, diversely, and intelligently realized offering — one could easily start from there and work one's way backwards.
☻Boris: This experimental (and extremely productive) Japanese trio is a perfect example of why I do not think much of «Japanese rock» in general, even if it is not nice to generalize from one example. They started out as an extremist noise combo, churning out albums that threatened to out-Merzbow Merzbow itself, and commanded attention if only for the arrogance of their extremism. Later on, they moved to all sorts of different formats, playing a variety of hard rock styles, being heavily influenced by atmospheric post-rock, even toying with the J-pop format on occasion, and making quite a name for themselves in the hipster underground with the unpredictability of their music and the diversity of their album sleeves. However, on the whole, I find them utterly derivative, quite devoid of creative genius (the best thing they can claim for themselves is the thick, crushing tone of their guitarist, a sultry lady who calls herself Wata), way overproductive, and, with just a few exceptions, unable to come up with any good reasons for the existence of their music. Possible starting point: Flood (2000), an early exercise in heavy atmospherics, is arguably one of their easiest-tolerated albums and their one single most successful stab at an original vision. Should you, by chance, be totally «flooded» with it, feel free to expand back and forward into their catalog — then you will be «flooded» quite literally.
☺Brainiac: This short-lived alt-rock band from the mid-Nineties, whose creative anabasis was tragically cut short by the accidental death of key member Tim Taylor, will be of at least passable interest to all fans of the «quirky» and «crazy» segments of the post-punk scene. Heavily influenced by both the Pixies and the grunge scene that came after the Pixies, but leaving out most of the angst and anger and replacing them with loud, abrasive, but inoffensive weirdness, these guys combined elements of punk, avantgarde, and electronica to push out a really distinctive sound: rather monotonous in impression and largely centered around just one mood, but cool enough to keep the listener happy for most of the average thirty minutes that each of their albums lasts. Not the best music of the Nineties, for sure, but not to be completely forgotten, either. Possible starting point: Bonsai Superstar (1994) is arguably Brainiac at their most «mature» and «balanced», but the other two records are well worth checking out as well.
☺Breeders, The: An autonomous offshoot off the venerable stem of the Pixies, the Breeders began life as a vehicle for the songwriting, singing, and playing talents of their eccentric, motherly lady bass player Kim Deal; later on, with the addition of her much less talented, but spiritually similar sister Kelley, they became a somewhat haunting, «femme-fatale-and-her-shadow» presence on the indie scene. More often than that, they were a haunting absence on the indie scene, only releasing an album every half-decade or so. Nowhere near as essential listening as the actual Pixies, they still might easily become the pet favorite of anybody susceptible to Kim Deal's charisma-enigma aura: she has a one-of-a-kind knack for tiny, but deep-sinking vocal and instrumental hooks, to which the production of Steve Albini (a lifelong pal of theirs) usually adds extra sharpness. Possible starting point: The first one, Pod (1990), has the label of being their most «legendary» offering, especially after its endorsement by Kurt Cobain, but my own favourite is the second one — Last Splash (1993) is indie-rock at its most befuddling and catchy.
○ Brian Jonestown Massacre, The: This is essentially just a cool, flashy, and appropriately hooliganish brand name for the production of one Anton Newcombe, a hazy, lazy, and dangerous Californian who has allegedly competed with all the original Stones not only in matters of music, but also in matters of hard drug consumption — and, unlike the Stones, he seems to actually be composing much, if not most, of his music while on drugs. So, if you want to know what real «music on drugs» sounds like, know that it sounds as if you took one riff from some 1960s psychedelic rock tune, turned it into a groove/vamp, looped it for five/seven/ten minutes at a slow speed or, at best, mid-tempo, spiced it up with various sonic effects, and repeated the same process for dozens of songs and then dozens of albums in a row — yes, this is basically the formula behind most of The BJM's music, and it is quite amazing that sometimes it actually works. Possible starting point: Take It From The Man! (1996) is probably Anton's first fully fleshed out record, on which he renounces most of the hip underground trends of the late 1980s / early 1990s and concentrates on answering the question, «what would the Rolling Stones' music sound like in 1968 if they let Brian Jones do all the work?» It must be noted, though, that subsequently the BJM go into a real creative slump, out of which Newcombe only emerged, for a brief period, with My Bloody Underground (2008), a noticeably darker, angrier, more hard rocking reinvention of the same formula, in full accordance with his plan «to keep music evil». Hopefully he'll just keep himself alive long enough to restore music to its proper levels of evilness.
○ Built To Spill: One of the pillars of Nineties' indie rock, the brainchild of guitar wizard and strict musical philosopher Doug Martsch, this band has a very dedicated fanbase, but one has to come to terms with the fact that it is really all about Doug Martsch and his guitar — which he plays fairly well, but most of all he is fond of overdubbing multiple guitar parts to create «polymelodies» that can be psychedelically overwhelming, but can also be confusing and seemingly meaningless. In other words, this is a band that is very easy to respect, but not so easy to love: one of those «much too smart for their own good» cases. Also, most of their albums sound the same, with minor nuances distinguishing one from the other, and it is not clear to me that for the past fifteen years Doug Martsch has actually managed to get a really new word in, instead of just re-chewing the same old truisms. He does consistently play a real mean guitar, though, and maybe that's all there should be to it, after all. Possible starting point: Perfect From Now On (1997) is usually acknowledged as their first «great» offering, and it's certainly not bad, so why not start here?
☺Adebisi Shank: Funny Irish math-rockers who supplement their passion for calculated riffs, complex tapping techniques, and polygonal song structures with old-school garage-rock energy and plenty of both kick-ass attitude and humor. Real fun stuff, and the bass guitarist plays with a bag over his head — if that does not bawl you over, you're probably a Justin Bieber fan or something. Possible starting point: This Is The Album Of A Band Called Adebisi Shank (2008) — fascinating title, isn't it? And the second one is even better.
☺Adele: Big girl with big... vocals, suffering from the biggest problem of our fin-de-siecle's artificial intellectualism: premature maturity — why so serious???? — but at least her maturity seems somewhat genuine, in the face of so many repugnant fakers. Possible starting point: 21 (2011), then proceed backwards in time to 19 (2008).
○ Agalloch: A rare case of a critically successful «black/folk metal» band of purely American origin. Based on, for the most part, the Scandinavian metal scene, these guys have managed to invent an eternal winter world all their own. Memorable melody does not count for much in it, but atmosphere certainly does, and if snow-covered pine trees against grey, sunless skies are the thing to trigger your deepest emotions, Agalloch offer an excellent soundtrack to this triggering. Possible starting point: The Mantle (2002).
○ Akron/Family: Professional weirdos from Oregon. Initial purpose: integrate meditative rootsy folk with whatever comes along. Along came electronic hooliganry, free-form jazz, psychedelia, and absurdism. At their best, they have developed a lovable ultra-modern take on Sixties idealism for people who only smoke their mushrooms picked fresh from Derrida's backyard. At their worst, they are simply a huge, smelly, frustrating musical question mark. Possible starting point: Love Is Simple (2007).
○ Alabama Shakes: Judgement postponed until they follow their debut album up with something else. Read the review.
○ Alcest: One of the projects of a lonesome French musician who calls himself ʽNeigeʼ. At his best, the guy creates repetitive, but highly atmospheric, somewhat otherworldly soundscapes by combining elements shoegaze, black metal, New Age, and traditional French pop. At his worst, he does exactly the same, but bores instead of mesmerizing. A curious phenomenon, although I am afraid that, as in so many other similar situations, his first album will forever remain his best one. Possible starting point: Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde (2007).
☻Alicia Keys: Epic fail. First two albums have some good songs, but if she continues to slide down the predictable chute of Tough Girl With Melisma, I prefer Nazism. Possible starting point: The Diary Of Alicia Keys (2003).
☺Allo Darlin': So far, a charming twee pop outfit with a romantically intelligent and intelligently romantic Elizabeth Morris and a bunch of instrumental backers churning out feather-light, but frequently pretty and well-written music. So far with but two albums to stake their reputation on, and the second one is disappointing, but be sure to check out the debut: Allo Darlin' (2010).
○ Amy Winehouse: Her personal problems overshadow her talent as far as the press goes, but I am certain she can be trusted with modernizing jazz music; it is up to the future to change that can to must. 2011 update: Well, the future is upon us — heck, of all the people to trust with modernizing jazz music we had to trust this incorrigible junkie. RIP Amy, we can only hope that at least these two albums will be remembered fondly. Possible starting point: Back To Black (2007).
○ And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: Their desire to be bigger than everything else sometimes pays off, and that's the best thing I can say about them. Overrated, but a cultural phenomenon for sure. Possible starting point: Source Tags & Codes (2000).
☺Andrew Bird: Violin music for intellectual snobs. More precisely, music from a well-educated guy significantly endowed with creative forces; erroneously pigeonholed as a «neo-swing» artist at first, Bird has merged folk, jazz, chamber pop, psychedelia, and whatever else comes his way into a literate melancholic-romantic brew all his own. The only downside is that now he has a steady formula, and it can eventually get on one's nerves. Possible starting point: The Swimming Hour (2001).
○ Animal Collective: Called the biggest thing of the 00's by the smallest army of fans of the 00's, which, sadly, means that, unless you're Klaatu's cousin twice removed, you probably won't enjoy them. I don't, but I'm certainly intrigued by these Beach Boys from a not so parallel world. Possible starting point: Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009).
○ Antlers, The: Led by Brooklyn-based Peter Silberman (for the first two records, actually, just a solo project for the man), this indie outfit has big, idealistic ambitions which are at times hard to balance with the somewhat modest talent — but the man does have a beautiful, if occasionally arch-whiny, voice, and a knack for hammering out angelic atmosphere and (more rarely) strong melodies. Possible starting point: In The Attic Of The Universe (2007); 2009's Hospice is the band's critically acclaimed breakthrough, but, IMHO, is actually their weakest offering, seducing people through its ambitiousness rather than real quality.
○ Antony And The Johnsons: With his early 19th century vocals, masochistic tendencies, androgynous image, and swirling mystical arrangements, Antony Hegarty is perfect (un)easy listening for one album, maybe two. It becomes harder to take his spiritualistic theater seriously when you understand that he has nothing else whatsoever up his sleeve, though. Possible starting point: I Am A Bird Now (2005).
☺ Arcade Fire: Now this is really one of the biggest — both literally and figuratively — bands of the 00's. Big polyphonic sound, catchy tunes, sensitive and smart mindsets, they have not become critical darlings for nothing. Spread the word, brother. Possible starting point: Funeral (2004).
☻Architecture In Helsinki: The most intriguing thing about this Australian octet is their band name — considering that their music has nothing whatsoever to do with Finland — and also the baffling way in which they crash-dumped their initially promising career into total disaster. The first two albums were a questionable, but at least somewhat idiosyncratic and thought-provoking mixture of twee-pop, electronica, and surrealism. Then, for some reason, they replaced the psychedelia and atmospherics with a strong dance-pop component, without a good idea of how to handle the latter; and, since the overall level of songwriting was never impressive to begin with, their later creations range mostly from «bland and forgettable» to «unintentionally awful». Possible starting point: Fans of absurdist indie-pop might want to briefly check out In Case We Die (2005), then think carefully about whether they are interested in anything else.
○ Arctic Monkeys: Intelligent British lads with great taste in influences — way too great to develop an interesting enough style of their own. They have mastered their instruments, but they still have to learn to write good melodies to go along with them. Possible starting point: Whatever People Say I Am... (2006).
○ Art Brut: These «neo-punk»-rockers of the Noughties don't write great melodies (haven't all great punk rock melodies already been written?) but compensate for it by being one of the smartest acts around to play it so utterly dumb, intelligently updating Ramonaesthetics for the next millennium. Hardly essential, but loads of fun for the thinking punker. Possible starting point: Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005).
○ Avalanches, The: A «plunderphonics» outfit from Australia that takes its plundering duties so seriously, they only managed to have one LP out over more than ten years of existence. Since I Left You (2001) has been hailed by many as a classic of the genre — and there is probably no harm in checking it out: at best, you will be enthralled by its loud, burly journey through the world of 1970s R&B samples and noise screens, and at worst, you will own some certifiable fodder for the average intellectual dance party.
☺Avett Brothers, The: Originally a «neo-bluegrass» band from North Carolina led by two real brothers, Seth and Scott, these guys have since evolved into a more wide-reaching roots-music-extravaganza. Limited vocalists and instrumentalists, they mainly get by on the strength and inventiveness of their songwriting and an unabashedly naïve sentimentality (for which, as it turns out, many people are quite starving in the 2000s). If you can stand the lame banjo playing, their rich catalog does have folksy treasures a-plenty. Possible starting point: A Carolina Jubilee (2003), their first long player, and proceed from there — the lads are fairly consistent.
○ Avril Lavigne: The proverbially manufactured «bad girl» of the '00s, Canada's hottest gift to the world of MTV since Alanis Morissette. Her big advantage over most competition is not that she co-writes her own songs (these days, you never know anyway), but that the songs are, for the most part, harmless, fun, and sometimes interestingly written bubblegum pop trash. As long as she keeps those Serious Artistic Ambitions down, she is one of America's relatively more palatable mainstream turds, if one ever feels the need to flagellate one's elitist nature. Possible starting point: The Best Damn Thing (2007).
○ Badly Drawn Boy: Damon Gough is a visually unattractive, painfully intellectual, deeply introvert virgin (okay, not really true — apparently, he's married with children) who comes from different parts of England, wears a furry hat as his trademark and, for over a decade, has been trying to become a new Nick Drake and Brian Wilson for his generation, with degrees of success usually ranging from «deadly boring» to «wait a moment, there just might be something there». General critical consensus, which I am somewhat in agreement with, is that he started out at his highest peak and has been steadily going downhill ever since, but hey, he's only 42 years old as of now. Maybe his children will eventually teach him greatness. Oh wait, he's a virgin. Possible starting point: The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (2000).
☺ Band Of Horses: More indie-roots-rock from the heartland (Arizona or something), with Ben "Big Beard" Bridwell handling most of the songwriting, singing, and ideological duties. Fortunately, he doth have a serious gift for lovely melody, and even if that does not automatically qualify him as the 21st century Neil Young, it means that each of the band's albums so far has been better than the previous one. So may we yet live to see Keith Richards induce Bridwell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Possible starting point: Infinite Arms (2010).
☺Baroness: Heavy metal dudes from Savannah, Georgia. Actually, «heavy metal dudes» is a bit impolite, as they set their minds on musical evolution from the very beginning — starting out in quirky math-rock mode, then opting for a more accessible, brawny, anthemic «battle sound», then adding a surprisingly efficient introspective / melancholic side to the experience. No «genius» as such, perhaps, but the band is really among the most interesting and intelligent «heavyweights» out there, at the moment. Possible starting point: Probably Red Album (2007) — their first full LP, arguably the brawniest and ballsiest one; start out there for fun reasons and work your way up as the band attempts to woo you over with more and more seriousness.
○ Bat For Lashes: A pseudonym for Natasha Khan (as if anyone with such a name really needed one), a one-woman band who, at her best, combines trash mysticism with interesting musical ideas culled from various alleys of art-rock and post-rock, and, at her worst — way more often than necessary — combines trash mysticism with nothing else. Possible starting point: Fur And Gold (2006), but I would recommend avoiding the (so far, only) follow-up.
○ BATS: «Math-rock» combined with a punk attitude — like a Discipline-era King Crimson out of the slums; all too befitting for a bunch of wild Dubliners who decided to vent their frustration in polygonal shapes rather than chaotic waves of feedback. Just two albums so far, but highly promising ones, even if their odd combination of street attitudes with refined intellectualism is not likely to win the band too many fans. Possible starting point: Red In Tooth & Claw (2009).
○ Battles: Another «math-rock» outfit from the depths of New York City, this one managed to become more noticeable than other such units for its strange mix of avantgardist art-rock with electronica, going as far as to produce the rock-instrumentation equivalent of what used to be synthesized with computers. Slight, but fun and thought-provoking. Possible starting point: Mirrored (2007).
○ Beach House: Dream-pop male/female duo from Baltimore who devote most of their time to writing the soundtrack to an imaginary Carlos Castaneda rewrite of Alice In Wonderland. But this is not as bad as it may sound: their friendly guitar-and-organ sound represents one of those cases where the soundtrack can make the content completely irrelevant. Possible starting point: Devotion (2008).
○ Beachwood Sparks: A Californian band that offer a pleasant, but not altogether substantial, mix of soft country-rock and psychedelia — 21st century «space cowboy-ism» as it is, taking its major cues from late period Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, but pushing ever and ever further into «dreamland» and even ambient territory. Unfortunately, the band members are neither awesome instrumentalists nor talented songwriters, and usually try to compensate with predictable atmosphere-generating technologies (droning, echo, multi-tracked harmonies, etc.). Possible starting point: Beachwood Sparks (2000) is the band at its least lethargic — with each subsequent release, they only dive deeper and deeper into somnambulant territory, so proceed with caution, and remember about Dorothy and the poppy field.
☺Bees, The: Two light-hearted guys and a bunch of sidemen from the Isle of Wight. Although their first album came out in 2002, their knowledge of music and willingness to be influenced by it seems to have stopped around 1975; they have mastered the basic techniques of sunshine pop, garage proto-punk, modest art-rock, various «black» genres of the early 1970s (from funk to Caribbean), and nothing else. Fortunately, they also have a good ear for melody: an absolute must-hear for all lovers of intelligent retro-pop. Possible starting point: Sunshine Hit Me (2002).
○ Beirut: Essentially a one-man band dominated by Zachary Condon, a one-of-a-kind project that could be subtitled «Reflections of a young New Mexican on the wide outside world of Europe». The young New Mexican loves ukuleles, heavy brass, and accordeons, does not know or care about how to write memorable songs, and flaunts around his innocent charisma; depending on your immunity level, you will probably love or hate this. Possible starting point: Gulag Orkestar (2006).
☺Beta Band, The: Critically acclaimed Scottish genre-hoppers who managed to accompany the turn of the millennium by marrying Sixties' folk-rock and psychedelia to all the trappings of the modern age (electronica, hip-hop, trip-hop, etc.) before deciding that, in the end, they only wanted to be a bunch of melancholic space-rockers. Decoding their creations is an elegant intellectual pleasure, but falling in love with them is a much more difficult proposition. Possible starting point: The Three EPs (1998).
☻Beyoncé: Even more so after starting her own solo career, free from the format limitations of Destiny's Child, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter seems to have become one of the musical fashion symbols of the 2000s. Strong, healthy, beautiful, on the cutting edge of production / technology, she is no less than this decade's symbol of glossy perfection. Like every such symbol, she is not at all devoid of talent — good voice, self-assured personality, and even a limited amount of composing skills all present. Nevertheless, on the large scale it all comes back to the same perversion of the «give the people what they want» principle, surreptitiously transmutated into «give the people what we will make them want». Clichéd lyrics, plastic, soulless musical arrangements, prevalence of image over substance, in short, all the usual things that have, for a long time now, separated «new school R&B» from «old school R&B». This is not to say that there isn't at least a small bunch of impressive grooves to be found on Beyoncé records, but overall, her «sexy black lady» persona comes across every bit as artificial as, say, Britney's «slutty white tramp» image. Possible starting point: B'Day (2007) arguably shows the dame at her most «experimental» — if you find nothing to like about that one, you shouldn't probably even bother with the rest.
○ Black Dice: This electronic outfit from Brooklyn started out on a tremendously promising note — their first two albums are not so much proper «electronic music» as they are a sort of «electronic jungle», painting bizarre and intriguing landscapes that, unlike most of the electronics I have heard, transport you to forests, mountains, and beaches rather than the usually expected «outer space» environment. Unfortunately, just two albums into their exploration, they switched to a much less interesting direction — more danceable, more noisy, more abrasive, but also more generic and offering much less food for the imagination. Possible starting point: Creature Comforts (2004) is my unquestionable favorite, although critical opinion tends to praise the previous album, Beaches And Canyons, even more highly.
☺Black Keys, The: A guitar-drums duo (no bass!) from Akron, Ohio, these guys have done some impressively serious work convincing their native country, if not the world, that they might just be the single best «rock and roll» act of the new millennium. Initially drawing upon such influences as «dark» boogie-blues, garage-punk, and proto-metal, they have since expanded into all sorts of new directions. Songwriting may be hit-and-miss, but their sense of style is nearly always impeccable. Not to be missed! Possible starting point: The Big Come Up (2002) — or, if minimalism pisses you off, there is no going wrong with the band's latest, El Camino (2011).
○ Black Lips: A «flower punk» band from Georgia, originally famous not so much for their music as for their provocative public behaviour, partially built on idolizing the likes of crazy man G. G. Allin; all the while, though, they were slowly forging their craft, eventually emerging as smart and professional synthesizers of the modern spirit with 1960's garage-rock and adjacent genres. They have lots of drawbacks: they can't sing, can't play, can't write memorable songs, and have lots of fond feelings for this awful thing called «lo-fi», but at least points 1 and 2 are neglectable for a punk band, and they compensate point 3 with intelligence, diversity, and an overall fun atmosphere that, on a good day, may be quite contagious. Possible starting point: Good Bad Not Evil (2007) — some of their most successful songs here, and mostly free from the evils of lo-fi for a change. Disturbed fans of lo-fi punk will prefer the earlier stuff from the hooligan days.
○ Black Mountain: Neo-hippies from Canada — bearded, smelly, 5-to-1 male-to-female ratio, the works — that make fun music (apocalyptic / sci-fi psychedelia) which alternately evokes 1967, 1970, and 1973. No great shakes, but they write nice songs, they mean well, and they can serve as a strong ladder that leads both into the future and the past. Provided they have a future, of course; the band is quite a fresh one. Possible starting point: In The Future (2008).
○ Blitzen Trapper: A retro-oriented band from Portland, Oregon, led by young intellectual visionary Eric Earley, whose vision is, at worst, always sufficient to turn Blitzen Trapper albums into pleasant listening and, at best, could almost hint at an entirely new, exciting way to integrate the good old «Americana» into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the band's several latest albums have been too heavy on modesty, humility, and style, and rather too light on genuinely interesting melodies. But they're not done yet! Possible starting point: Blitzen Trapper (2003), still unsurpassed, I think, even by such later-period critical breakthroughs as Wild Mountain Nation (2007).
○ Bloc Party: Overhyped UK indie sensation. First album showed terrific musicianship and energy; second album mostly just showed energy; third album showed crap electronic dance shit. The steady downward curve probably has to do with band leader Kele Okereke's hyperinflation; I am secretly hoping that one of these days he'll just fly off in space and the rest of the band will simply return to playing their instruments. Possible starting point: Silent Alarm (2005).
○ Blood Brothers, The: This bunch of musical extremists from Seattle managed to build themselves up quite a solid reputation during their decade together, and it is not difficult to see why: not many «post-hardcore» acts can combine their level of technicality, complexity, intricate verbosity, and barbarous intensity. Unfortunately, their vocals (ranging from all-out screamo on the early records to nastily insane screechy whine on the late ones) can be a major put-off, and their intentional condescension towards hooks (typical of most «post-hardcore» acts, I'd say) makes the individual compositions way too often indistinguishable from one another. I can tacitly acknowledge the artistry, but find no pleasure or enlightenment in the music. Possible starting point: Burn, Piano Island, Burn! (2003) is usually listed as their masterpiece; later records contain more elements of subtlety, but I actually think that, if these guys are ever at their best, they are more likely to be so on the early, all-out-frontal-assault albums.
○ Blood Ceremony: A highly retro-oriented Canadian band, led by songwriter/guitarist Sean Kennedy and flute-wielding frontwoman Alia O'Brien, these guys never make the slightest attempt to mask their influences — they play as if they were a modern day Black Sabbath with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson on flute and the Doors' Ray Manzarek on the organ. Except they also pretend to be taking Sabbath's occult and satanic motives seriously: with endless references to witches, wizards, dark magic, and pagan practices, they clearly enjoy getting into character so much that the Church should have already been at their heels, if it weren't so busy these days fighting abortions, gay marriages, and evolution theory. The songs are not very good (they are way too busy mimicking their predecessors to develop as songwriters), and the playing is rather primitive even by the standards of 1970 (think Uriah Heep level or something like that), but every now and then they still fall upon a good riff, and somehow their costume dramaticism ends up on the fun side of things rather than on the pretentiously irritating one. Nothing special, but worth checking out if you're one of those «where has all the good music faded away to since 1975?» types, and particularly if you prefer Black Sabbath's 13 over any other album released in the 21st century by anyone under 50.
☻Bon Iver: Unfortunately, Justin Vernon of Wisconsin is prepared to enter the musical annals — if I were responsible for those annals, though, it would only have been under the subtitle of «the guy who drove the last spike in the credibility of indie-folk». Hailed by the «independent musical press» as one of the greatest things to happen to music in the late 2000s, «Bon Iver» actually gets by almost exclusively on the power of the heart-on-the-sleeve attitude, which he understands as lots of minimalistic acoustic guitar, lots of falsetto, and (on his latest record) lots of atmospheric chimes, electronic noises, and lazy slide guitar sliding. For the most part, this is awfully derivative, awfully clumsy, awfully pretentious, and awfully boring. If ever the indie scene needed its own equivalent of Justin Bieber, this is it. (And they're both Justins, too!).
☻Books, The: A creative duo from the depths of New York City: this already sounds dangerous, and it is – although one of the members is a talented guitarist, and the other one a professional cellist, their main passion is collecting samples and setting them to bits and scraps of folksy melodies. Supposedly this type of art form is to be deciphered as «a symbolic depiction of life in all of its numerous apparitions», but whether the actual «music» stirs up amazement, emotional turmoil, or intellectual awakening is up to you to decide. Personally, I admit that this stuff can be occasionally funny and occasionally smart, but 90% of the time it is just irritating, pointless, and needlessly provocative (seriously stimulating the «Contemporary Art Must Die» movement). Fortunately, as of 2012, the project seems to be finally dead. Possible starting point: The Way Out (2010) is the most «musical» of their albums; if, perchance, you happen to be overwhelmed, feel free to subject your brain to the early stuff as well.
○ Botch: A short-lived «metalcore» band from Tacoma, Washington, these guys left behind a very brief, but allegedly influential legacy of just two albums, and are now acknowledged as early pioneers of «math rock» — with their angular, bizarrely twisted guitar melodies in sharp contrast with the usual styles of thrash, pop, or fantasy metal, not to mention the grunge scene, dominant in the Northwest at the time and reputedly alergic and hostile to Botch, which explains (partially) why the band was so short-lived. To enjoy, or even respect them, you unfortunately have to get past the annoying formulaic scream-shit-vocals of their lead shit-vocalist, but if you do manage the effort, some of the songs are really quite smart, and go a long way in dragging the metal genre out of its generic conventions (not that you'd notice that if you mainly concentrated on the vocals, though). Possible starting point: Of the two albums, We Are The Romans (1999) is unquestionably the most ambitious and the least predictable. But if you have the faintest interest in this kind of music in the first place, you'll probably end up checking out both anyway.
○ Brand New: This band is sometimes called one of the few «emo» bands that are really worth listening to... but I don't know about that, really. Their creative curve shows some progress, as they went from your typical teenage-issue breakup-focused shit-rock combo to worrying about deeper, subtler, grander issues (human suffering, end of the world, whatever), but outside of a few occasional flashes of atmospheric brilliance, their hooks still tend to be flat, and their singing still relies way too heavily on formulaic screeching to be truly resonant. If this is truly the best that «emo» has to offer, I am scared to even begin thinking about the worst. Possible starting point: If The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me (2006) does not already seduce you with its title, let me just remark that this is the album that has the largest amount of well-written songs on it, hands down. Which is still not that much, but... you wanted the best, hell, you got it.
☻Bright Eyes: Look no further than this «band» (actually, a shapeless, constantly shifting conglomeration of Nebraskan musicians under the leadership of adolescent guru Conor Oberst) to understand why so many people file «indie» in the cuss word register. With but a microscopic spoonful of songwriting talent, skyscraper-high pretense coupled with a complete lack of any sense of humor and self-irony, and a singing style specially developed to make milk curdle, Conor Oberst somehow managed to earn lots of respect from the critical community, based, it seems, mainly on the criterion of «sincerity» — and semi-decent poetic skills. On the personal scale, he may be an admirable fellow, but the music of Bright Eyes is mainly based on rehashing primitive folk, country, and, sometimes, «alt-rock» patterns; sometimes it boasts highly elaborate, atmospheric arrangements, making it the equivalent of a rotting corpse, immaculately dressed up to the latest fashion. Possible starting point: there isn't one, really, but if you are genuinely curious, at least stay away from Conor's earliest, bedroom-quality-recorded albums — hi-fi Bright Eyes is bad enough, but lo-fi Bright Eyes generates hatred vibes at a thousand per second.
○ British Sea Power: Guess where these guys come from. Yes, you got it almost right: Brighton rather than Dover, but the margin of error is minimal on the overall scale of the Universe, which also happens to be the scale against which these guys measure most of their music. Huge, overwhelming, sprawling waves of sound that are, indeed, «oceanic» in atmosphere, but their ambition goes way over the limited — and, historically speaking, mostly obsolete — pretense of the actual British sea power. Accordingly, the band positions itself at the «sincere / romantic / heart-wrenching» flank of the indie army rather than its «cynical / po-mo» flank, and often comes across as the British equivalent of Arcade Fire. Their biggest problem — not an unusual development for the indie crowds — is writing memorable melodies: the average B.S.P. hook is kinda blunt and dumb, but it is so well concealed by all the guitars / keyboards / strings / drums / background vocals that you might be forever overwhelmed and seduced way before your conscience strips away all the shrink wraps. Then again, maybe not. Possible starting point: Open Season (2005) — the one that seems to have the densest accumulation of guitar hooks.
☻Britney Spears: Want it or not, here is an icon of the turn of the millennium, and, unlike certain other artificially crafted mainstream icons (most «boy bands» included, for instance), her career is actually worth an explorative peek — from a certain point of view, Britney has had a fascinating journey of ups-and-downs, perfectly illustrating everything that's wrong (and a few tiny things that are right) with today's corporate industry. Awful, yes, but not «boring» in the sense of album after album of monotonous primitive pap that all sounds the same — Britney's primitive pap, masterminded by some of the most deliciously hideous pervs in the business, flew from Lolita bubblegum teen-pop to modern R&B to sex goddess trance to robotic electropop to «Lady Gaga for those with a limited sense of humor». At the very least, she provokes thought, and that is more than I could say about Taylor Swift (now there is your quintessential boredom). Possible starting point: Just look at all the album covers and you'll know where to start.
☺Broadcast: Just another electronic indie outfit from Birmingham? Well, not quite, because the charming duo of James Cargill and Trish Keenan (constituting the core of the band) is actually responsible for some of the loveliest, if a bit too icy, art-pop melodies to come from the UK in a decade that was, technically, stuffed with high quality art-pop melodies — but it took the instrumental and production skills of Cargill and the vocal talent of Keenan to spice them up with actual magic. The band's «electrono-psychedelic barrel organ» approach was not very diverse and quite derivative (after all, they inherited a whoppin' huge tradition all the way from Cocteau Twins and up to Stereolab), but they managed adding their own individual touch, which makes it all the more sad that, with Trish Keenan's tragic demise in 2011, Broadcast are gone from our sight way too early. Possible starting point: They only had time for three proper LPs, so just start with The Noise Made By People (2000) and go all the way to Tender Buttons (2005), which I consider to be their best.
○ Broken Social Scene: A huge pack of idealistic Canadians with genuine artistic credentials, tolerable, if not amazing musicianship, and a taste for huge, sprawling musical landscapes. Sounds like yet another huge pack of idealistic Canadians we know, but the problem is that the songwriters in Arcade Fire have elements of genius and bleeding hearts to match, whereas Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew, the leaders of BSS, may simply be too smart for their own good. If your vibes are on the same wavelength as mine, a tasteful, but ultimately forgettable listen is guaranteed. Possible starting point: You Forgot It In People (2002) is usually quoted as the band's high point, and who am I to argue when it comes to this «humbly megalomaniac» indie crap?
○ Burial: This UK-based loner (known to the authorities under the less colorful name of William Bevan) specializes in electronic synthesis that is often formally classified as a form of dubstep, but in reality is the musical equivalent of the world slowly rebuilding itself after the nuclear apocalypse. At least, this is the kind of visual interpretation that helps me get interested in whatever the gentleman has to offer; yours may be different, but the undeniable fact is that Burial's odd aproach to combining dubstep rhythmics, ambient instrumentation, and ironically deconstructed R&B samples is evocative, regardless of what it is that it actually evokes. Possible starting point: Burial (2006) is where it all begins in earnest, although the follow-up, Untrue (2007), got more critical and commercial success — but I do think that the best way to tackle this guy is in strict chronological order.
Part 1. Before The Rock'n'Roll Band Era (1920-1960)
THE BIG BLUES (1962)
1) Let's Have A Natural Ball; 2) What Can I Do To Change Your Mind?; 3) I Get Evil; 4) Had You Told It Like It Was (It Wouldn't Be Like It Is); 5) This Morning; 6) I Walked All Night Long; 7) Don't Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong; 8) Travelin' To California; 9) I've Made Nights By Myself; 10) This Funny Feeling; 11) Ooh-Ee Baby; 12) Dyna Flow.
Albert King had actually been cutting records since 1953, but they were few and far between; he did not properly emerge on the blues scene until the early Sixties, and thus, missed the chance to be inscribed into the «premier league» of Chicago's electric blues pioneers that unleashed Mick Jagger into this world. However, that was not a big problem: apparently, unlike other players who had it fast, cool, and then burnt out early, the man needed a long gestation period for himself.
King's first LP is one of those — quite numerous — records that, today, will not make a big impression on anyone but the finest blues connoisseur (or, vice versa, some poor fellow who has never heard a blues record before). Twelve sides, rather evenly divided into slow blues and fast blues, with a minor touch of rumba here and there to spice up the proceedings, all wedged deeply into the existing formulae of the day. The «fatness» of the sound, achieved by throwing in brass sections, sax solos, and female back-up vocalists, certainly contrasts with, for instance, the more restricted approach of Muddy Waters, but still, by 1962 this kind of «blues-soul» sound was the word of the day, with everyone from Otis Rush to Ray Charles to Freddie and, of course, B. B. King contributing to it with as much as they had to say.
Considering that, as a singer or blueswailer, Albert King is just about as competent as they are (and I would timidly suggest that he has got a lot less vocal versatility than his king-brother Freddie), just about the only thing of interest on the album is his guitar playing. But even here you will have to judge it by the standards of 1962 rather than those of today, when these licks are, like, all printed out on the first page of every beginner's blues course. Back then, however, King's playing was sharp, clean, and precise, much more polished than the classic Fifties sound of guys like Elmore James or Otis Rush. To some people, this sort of blues-de-luxe, with clean, unerring licks and bends backed up with slick production and horns, might have been anticlimactic — exactly the same way that some people today continue to find B. «B. for Burger» King anticlimactic. But then, it's all just different angles of show-biz, right?
The commonly mentioned highlight is the successful single 'Don't Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong': three minutes of utterly generic slow blues played by an utterly awesome master of the trade. The opening licks slice the speakers nice and sharp, but, other than that, the only thing that makes it more notable than the other three-minute pieces on here is that it happened to be released as a single — and the others did not. (Tough luck.)
Eye-catching tunes include the nifty fast opener 'Let's Have A Natural Ball', a brass-driven piece of jump blues where Albert makes a respctable attempt at turning into Big Joe Turner circa 1940, but still ends up wooing you with his guitar playing rather than singing ability; the morose retro lounge-spirit-infested 'Had You Told It Like It Was', somewhat flattened by the supporting girl singers who don't seem to have a real clue as to who that big guy with the guitar really is; and 'I Get Evil', lyrics-wise, the same song as Chuck Berry's 'Don't Lie To Me', but music-wise, anticipating the notorious shuffle of 'Cross-Cut Saw' five years later.
Anticlimactic moments are few (the happy pop song 'This Funny Feeling', all vocal harmonies and no guitar at all, should rather have been done by the likes of The Shirelles, I would think), but if you jumped at this with high expectations, the whole experience can be anticlimactic, and if you did not, you might as well tolerate Albert King imitating a Motown girl group — trust me, you won't ever get a second chance.
From the intellect's point of view, one could appeal to historic importance and respect for pure professionalism, but the gut feeling is a bit too suppressed with the monotonousness of it all, trumping any intellectual cards that might show up, and turns this into a thumbs down — professional respect alone is sometimes not enough.
BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN (1967)
1) Born Under A Bad Sign; 2) Crosscut Saw; 3) Kansas City; 4) Oh, Pretty Woman; 5) Down Don't Bother Me; 6) The Hunter; 7) I Almost Lost My Mind; 8) Personal Manager; 9) Laundromat Blues; 10) As The Years Go Passing By; 11) The Very Thought Of You.
The only serious difference between this classic album and King's previous recordings is that Born Under A Bad Sign — technically, just a singles' collection from his early years on Stax — has Booker T. and the MGs on all or most of the tracks. But what a difference. For instance, Donald «Duck» Dunn is one of those few session players who have, early on, realized that if a bass guitar can sound menacing and dangerous, then it should sound menacing and dangerous. There's also The Memphis Horns, one of the tightest ever brass sections, to add extra sharpness to the proceedings. And King himself must have understood that he had to rise to the challenge, if he was not to get lost against such a monstruously professional background.
So the title track is, arguably, one of the most famous blues tunes ever recorded — a brilliant combination of a simple, but devastatingly memorable riff that just exemplifies the word «threatening», and a lyrical twist that deserves to be carved in stone on the tombs of miriads of losers around the world: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all". A year later, Cream did the song justice, but they never beat it — not least because they just could not identify so well with the feeling as the performer. At least they had the good taste of omitting the verse about how "I can't read, I don't know how to write, my whole life has been one big fight".
These fat, blistering, arrogant tunes that, for a short time at least, breathed new life into generic blues, recapturing the old fire and brimstone of Muddy and Wolf but setting it within an entirely modern (for 1967) context, just keep coming: 'Crosscut Saw' (whose guitar licks Clapton shamelessly, but skillfully, appropriated for 'Strange Brew'), 'Oh Pretty Woman' (where the bass borders on early metal), 'The Hunter', 'Personal Manager' — forget about the countless imitators who have not a single excuse for putting their product on the market, this is the real thing.
In between, Albert sandwiches a few tender blues ballads that are also inventive — the tender flute on 'I Almost Lost My Mind', the brass-piano interplay on the longing, complaintive 'As The Years Go Passing By', the light jazz tinge of 'The Very Thought Of You' (which, for personal reasons, reminds me of all those lounge-style Keith Richards' album closers on late period Stones' albums), it all makes up for a diverse experience. Nothing better confirms King's profound inspiration at the time than the fact that each of these songs has its own personal identity — quite unlike The Big Blues, where half of the songs at least sounded like carbon copies of each other. (Of course, a large percentage of the thanks goes to the Stax army.)
Arguably, Born Under A Bad Sign is the last great — and I mean great, in terms of both defining its epoch and influencing the epochs to come — blues album recorded by a pre-rock'n'roll era artist, and at the same time beautiful proof that Fifties' artists, with a little extra wit and a little outside help, had every chance of not only surviving in the changing times, but even ruling them. It belongs in every music lover's collection, and if you are that particular music lover who idolizes and fetishizes hate for «generic blues», my advice is to simply forget that generic blues exists and just treasure this one record.
To commemorate this event, heart and brain shake hands (do brains have hands?) in this debate, and both hurry to the podium at the same rate to provide a mighty thumbs up. Even despite the rather useless inclusion of 'Kansas City', a tune better left to Little Richard.
LIVE WIRE/BLUES POWER (1968)
1) Watermelon Man; 2) Blues Power; 3) Night Stomp; 4) Blues At Sunrise; 5) Please Love Me; 6) Look Out.
"A permanent member of the Fillmore family, a great guitarist — this is Mr. Albert King!" History buffs should pay particular attention to the word 'permanent' on behalf of the announcer: it shows that flower power kids, contrary to rumours, were not bred with the specific purpose of being compatible with trippy jams of the Jefferson Airplane and the like, but, on the contrary, were quite susceptible to all kinds of music, including grandfather-oriented stuff like Albert King, who could be electric for all he liked, but who, after all, just played straightforward old blues.
On the other hand, maybe it is simply all due to King's personal charisma which he lays down on the audience much thicker than the actual licks he plays. If anything, Live Wire gives a great image of him as a showman, never forgetting that interacting with the audience is the most vital part of his show. All through the songs, particularly 'Blues Power', he keeps talking to the people, telling them little bits of stories, asking them questions, getting them on their feet, teasing them with bits of silence followed by musical explosions, and despite the fact that his arsenal of guitar tricks is limited and they start repeating themselves heavily after a while, he makes the audience love this game so much that the applause is just as heavy on the last numbers as on the first ones — even though, to tell the truth, there isn't all that much, musically, to distinguish the last numbers from the first.
It is also obvious just how intent he is on keeping his cool. Big man, big guitar, big sound, standing calm and collected, playing it slow and meticulous, every now and then letting out a lightning bolt of notes, but also every now and then just keeping it down, self-assured and content about just knowing that he can do whatever he wants on that instrument — he just won't, if he doesn't want to. He is no flamboyant eccentric like Jimi Hendrix, way above playing with his teeth; but every once in a while he just lets out this bit of insane laughter — "ha ha!" — translated into layman speak as: «yes brother, pretty simple for me, could be pretty simple for you, too, but no dice, brother, it's me on that stage, and you in that audience». Then he lets rip, and everyone is plugged back in his seat, mouth open, ears ringing.
Of course, «letting rip» is as relative as you would expect. Predictably, while playing live, King goes for lengthier solos, and he is neither as inventive nor as technically efficient as the white British guy with the slow hand that spent a lot of time ripping him off. There are two types of solos here: the fast one and the slow one, and that is all you need to know. But it is not the solos themselves that are important: it's the Presence. They should be taken together with the stage patter, with the ha-ha's, with the aahs and oohs, and particularly with the long rant at the start of 'Blues Power': "Everybody understands the blues...". Is that really true? Perhaps the whole essence of the blues is also in the Presence. And, boring or not in purely musical terms, this album conveys blues Presence better than any other recording from 1968.
Not that the heart has managed to convince the brain of it — the latter is not supposed to rationally understand things like «presence» — but at least it has managed to let the brain stay out of the way for a bit, allowing Live Wire to receive a solid thumbs up for capturing a great showman at the top of his show powers.
YEARS GONE BY (1969)
1) Wrapped Up In Love Again; 2) You Don't Love Me; 3) Cockroach; 4) Killing Floor; 5) Lonely Man; 6) If The Washing Don't Get You The Rinsing Will; 7) Drowning On Dry Land; 8) Drowning On Dry Land (Instrumental); 9) Heart Fixing Business; 10) You Threw Your Love On Me Too Strong; 11) The Sky Is Crying.
Obviously, you do not change a winning formula; and, like almost every formulaic follow-up to an epochal album, Years Gone By is less interesting and exciting than Born Under A Bad Sign, but still a great romp for the freshly converted fan.
I do not hear any new techniques, tones, or licks on Years, but that is to be expected. What is actually a bit more sad is that Booker T. and the MGs, still faithfully backing King, have stepped back into the shade, putting almost all the emphasis on King's guitar and personality; and no matter how adorable his guitar and his personality are, they are exactly the same as before. 'Cockroach' is the highlight because of King's playful attitude — come on, isn't it old-fashioned fun to hear a big old blues guy complain about cockroaches crawling down his arms and legs because he'd been thrown out of his house by his baby? — but on the lyrically amusing 'Heart Fixing Business' and 'If The Washing Don't Get You' he doesn't really do much except for just sing and play, and so these tunes are no better and no worse than the ordinary everyday mid-tempo/slow blues from Albert.
No surprise that the best track is the one on which he gets the most interplay between himself and the backing band, particularly the horns — an instrumental rendition of the blues standard 'You Don't Love Me' (which the average listener probably knows through the entirely different Allman Bros. version), with the horns carrying the main theme. This is unusual, smooth, and impressive; blues-de-luxe at its grandest. Apart from that, it's all just decent blues. Thumbs up out of general practice and politeness, but prepare to be gallantly bored if you are not deep into the electric 12-bar enterprise. Still, even this «generic» level is miles above the «generic» level of his upcoming career on Tomato.
BLUES FOR ELVIS: KING DOES THE KING'S THINGS (1970)
1) Hound Dog; 2) That's All Right; 3) All Shook Up; 4) Jailhouse Rock; 5) Heartbreak Hotel; 6) Don't Be Cruel; 7) One Night; 8) Blue Suede Shoes; 9) Love Me Tender.
A fun idea — a tribute from one King to another; and quite novel at the time, since having jaded bluesmen systematically covering jaded rock'n'rollers was a pretty rare occasion. The album may have been triggered by Elvis' recent comeback, but the songs are all old — completely in line with all the cool people, Albert King did not think that any of Elvis' post-Army stuff merited his serious attention. (And I, personally, would not be happy at the prospect of hearing Albert's passionate take on 'Are You Lonesome Tonight'!)
Unfortunately, it is not nearly as exciting as one might suppose it could have been. King and the Stax people do their best to rearrange the old standards in ways that would, at the same time, preserve the basic melody and structure, but also be true to Albert's own style, and it doesn't always work. Or, rather, it mostly works, but the resulting sound is surprisingly ordinary. Same licks as on Bad Sign, but the horns and the rhythm section lack the latter album's inspiration. Also, listening to Albert sing Elvis is somewhat disconcerting; I'd rather the entire record were instrumental, like his take on 'One Night', where he does «the King's thing» with his guitar much better than with his voice.
The best numbers are those where he gets a chance to stretch out and jam a bit, like the slow, ominous take on 'That's All Right Mama' (you'd think he could have reverted to the style of Arthur Crudup's original, but he does it in a much darker fashion), or the jazzified, «loungified» six minute reworking of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. These are classic, if not too outstanding, King material. The rest may take a hike in the thumbs down direction — but, out of mere historical and stylistic curiosity, it is recommendable to listen to this at least once.
1) Honky Tonk Women; 2) Bay Area Blues; 3) Corrina, Corrina; 4) She Caught The Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride); 5) For The Love Of A Woman; 6) Lovejoy, Ill.; 7) Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven; 8) Going Back To Iuka; 9) Like A Road Leading Home.
Is it interesting to hear Albert King's take on the Rolling Stones? I have my doubts. Earlier, the Rolling Stones took the blues and turned it into sweaty rock'n'roll; now King is taking their sweaty rock'n'roll back from them and turning it back into the blues. His fluid, tasteful solo is definitely superior to Keith Richards' in terms of technical skill, but Keith Richards' solo on 'Honky Tonk Women' is the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones, and Albert King's solo on his cover version is — well, just another Albert King solo.
On the other hand, at least this cover version is curious enough to merit a special review paragraph: most of the other tunes here are impossible to describe in any terms that are different from the ones used previously. That does not mean that the playing is bad or boring — on the contrary, Lovejoy is simply another excellent King record from his peak years. Rocking and occasionally ironic: 'Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven' is certainly remarkable not for using the exact same melody as 'Have You Ever Loved A Woman', but for following the title up with the sly remark — '...but nobody wants to die'.
The only big surprise comes at the end, with a «neo-gospel» ballad ('Like A Road Leading Home') where Albert tries something that he had never done before — singing and playing with a «tender soul» approach, more common on country-rock records by idealistic young whitebread snappers than on old burnt-out blues guys' contributions. However, atypical as this approach is for Albert, he pulls the deal off splendidly, and non-jaded listeners may even shed a tear or two over his plea of 'turn around, turn around, turn around and I'll be there', or over the closing passionate guitar solo, or even over the female backing vocals.
Other than that, just dig in. There are some cool, light-headed, loose funky jams worth any music lover's time — heck, almost anything with Booker T. & The MGs on it is worth any music lover's time. Thumbs up, although this is becoming a routine thing.
I'LL PLAY THE BLUES FOR YOU (1972)
1) I'll Play The Blues For You; 2) Little Brother; 3) Breaking Up Somebody's Home; 4) High Cost Of Loving; 5) I'll Be Doggone; 6) Answer To The Laundromat Blues; 7) Don't Burn Down The Bridge; 8) Angel Of Mercy.
A most important change of scenery. This time around, instead of Booker T. & The MG's, Albert teams up with the Bar-Kays for an overall sound that is more funk-flavoured R'n'B than traditional blues, and it works — his old licks, stewed in this new setting, suddenly acquire a new freshness. It turns out that they are fully compatible with syncopated bass and wah-wah rhythms, and can easily carry on a lengthy funk jam the same way they'd carried on all the lengthy blues jams.
Obviously, like all the older generation bluesmen who had the luck to become or go on being commercial and critical stars in the 1960s, King was reluctant to see his name drop off the charts or get dirtied with the tag of «irrelevance», so some sort of modernization was in order; and, fortunately for humanity, this was still early Seventies, when funk was young and fresh and totally progressive in essence, and the Bar-Kays could play it as well as anyone. One thing most funk people did not have, though, was a great traditional guitarist to back them up — and this means that there is every reason in the world to listen to I'll Play The Blues For You even after you have heard all the George Clinton and James Brown and Sly Stone classics from this era.
There could only be one way in which the results would have turned out catastrophic: that is, if Albert started reinventing himself as some sort of funk superstar to show off rather than just play and sing. This is more or less how things are on the album's unluckiest track, a syncopated groove reworking of Marvin Gaye's pop standard 'I'll Be Doggone'. Recorded live, it incorporates some fairly forced audience interaction where Albert admits to wanting to play a James Brown before the fans ('can I go to the bridge?' and all that), and this is just not him — he sounds nowhere near as self-assured as when asking his San Francisco albums if they 'can dig it' on the live albums from 1968. Wanting to funk it up is one thing, but playing with James Brown at James' own game is quite another.
However, this is just an exception. Everywhere else King is being quite moderate, wisely leaving the «renovation» to his backing band, himself satisfied with pouring the same old wine into new winebags. The hit title track, a pompous piece of blues-soul in the vein of B. B. King, is deeply emotional; 'Breaking Up Somebody's Home' rocks harder than anything on his last two albums; and 'Don't Burn Down The Bridge' has as much soul-wrenching blues power as it has knee-jerking funk power.
I would not go as far as to call these songs «masterpieces», but if ever there was a reason for Albert King to go on recording new music, this bit of restyling is that reason — in fact, it is hard to think of any other way in which he could have successfully freshened up his approach. In terms of actual influence, I'll Play The Blues For You does not even begin to compare with Born Under A Bad Sign, but in terms of self-contained musical progress, it is King's most clever and inspired album ever since, and it deserves all the thumbs up it can get from both the mind and the heart.
I WANNA GET FUNKY (1974)
1) I Wanna Get Funky; 2) Playing On Me; 3) Walking The Back Streets And Crying; 4) 'Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone; 5) Flat Tire; 6) I Can't Hear Nothing But The Blues; 7) Travelin' Man; 8) Crosscut Saw; 9) That's What The Blues Is All About.
Second time around, the Bar-Kays seem even more confident about knowing how to present King in a modernized neon light. Due to certain star configurations, it could no longer happen that King be commercially successful, or that the critics continue paying him the proper attention; but with time leveling out the inequalities, more and more people should be returning to this period in Albert's career as containing some of his most underrated records.
The official statement is right here at the beginning: "I wanna get funky, I wanna get down", the man proclaims, but, fortunately, not in a hyped-up, rhythm-heavy James Brown kind of way, which does not fit in with King's stateliness one iota. It is a slow-moving, «lumbering» even, grumbling and growling R'n'B number, bolsterous and braggy on the surface but consciously sad and tired deep within. The catch is, he really wants to get funky, but without ceasing to be bluesy — because it would be unimaginable for Albert King to sacrifice the blues.
The Bar-Kays understand that wish and respect it. 'Playing On Me' is certainly quite funky, and 'Flat Tire' even more so — 'Flat Tire', in fact, borders on disco, and has all the wah-wah stuff and all the chicken scratch guitar playing you need, but King brazenly keeps on playing his old licks, just adapting them a little bit for the new rhythmic structures. Both are fun, danceable, and emotional numbers played with verve, as hot as anything that the Seventies' funk scene was capable of yielding. Somewhat less satisfactory is the funky reworking of 'Crosscut Saw' — perhaps King himself realized that, since midway through the song he reverts the band back to the original rhythmics and finishes the song in a much more traditional manner.
Interwoven between the dance material are more classic-style slow blues numbers, not particularly exceptional but not throwaways either; 'Walking The Back Streets And Crying' is aiming for a very high level of desperation, highlighted by shrill-pitched brass blasts from the Memphis Horns, and he also delivers one of the most piercing solos of his career on 'I Can't Hear Nothing But The Blues', effectively putting a stop to claims that he had not produced a single new guitar lick since 1967 (provided such claims were ever voiced).
Fresh, invigorated, modernized, but not desecrated — I Wanna Get Funky is a blueprint model for how all of the old blues heroes should have steered their careers past their prime, and the way I hear it, Albert is still in his prime. The brain is amazed at how intelligent this is, the heart just keeps singing along to the grooves, and a thumbs up is guaranteed from both.
1) Guitar Man; 2) I'm Ready; 3) Ain't Nothing You Can Do; 4) I Don't Care What My Baby Do; 5) Change Of Pace; 6) My Babe; 7) Running Out Of Steam; 8) Rub My Back; 9) (Ain't It) A Real Good Sign.
Albert King himself is like a big bulging rock: he may lose a bit from weathering every now and then, but you cannot really tell unless you reconstruct the original size a million years back. The purity of the waters around him, though, is quite heavily dependent on how many oil tankers got sunk in them recently. And if the stench gets too unbearable, will you still be able to admire the rock? You will probably be too busy searching for your gas mask.
At the height of his funky Bar-Kays period, King left Stax — the most unfortunate move of his career — and joined the small label Utopia. Not that he had much choice: Stax had been suffering from major financial problems for a few years, and by the end of 1975, was forced into bankruptcy. But regardless of whether he did have a choice or not, the effect was predictably tragic. All of a sudden, despite the voice, guitar licks, and tunefulness still being there, nothing else is.
Purists will want to hate Albert with all their strength, since it pushes King further down the commercial track, with the addition of poppy female choruses and disco basslines; it may even seem that the guitar itself is frequently pushed back, letting the typically Seventies party atmosphere take centerstage. I do not think this should necessarily be a problem; King hadn't been a rigid blues purist since at least 1966, and there was no reason why he should suddenly become one in 1976, and besides, «black party music» in 1976 was not necessarily a bad thing: if you can stand Chic, you can stand Albert King with a disco beat.
The problem is that the backing band — and there is a whole army of backup musicians listed in the credits, none of whom I've ever heard about previously — is fairly rote. These are generic session hacks, doing their job faithfully but without any sort of inspiration. The opening track, 'Guitar Man', had every chance to become an outstanding rousing funky brawl, but the way they do it — it's just okay. The drummer just drums, the bass player just lays down a stiff rhythm, the backup singers chant "guitar man, guitar man, let's get it on, guitar man, guitar man" as if someone wound them up for a five-minute period, and even King himself, distraught by this stiffness, plays in a perfunctory manner, hiding deep down in the mix in an ashamed manner.
The same is true of everything on the album — there are no serious lapses of taste, but neither the slow blues numbers ('Ain't Nothing You Can Do', 'Rub My Back'), nor the more upbeat ones ('My Babe') register as «having that extra special something». It is always better understood in comparison — for instance, one is advised to play King's version of 'I'm Ready' along with Muddy Waters' original. The latter made you want to run and hide; the former makes you wonder just how bored one should have really been to record this tripe.
It is all moderately pleasant, but there were millions of records like this, no better or worse, made in 1976, and it is a pity to see giants compete with mediocrity. Thumbs down; I cannot even recommend one deserving song off the album. Maybe 'I Don't Care What My Baby Do' — it has a curious flute part. More interesting than most guitar parts on here.
TRUCKLOAD OF LOVIN' (1976)
1) Cold Women With Warm Hearts; 2) Gonna Make It Somehow; 3) Sensation, Communication Together; 4) I'm Your Mate; 5) Truck Load Of Lovin'; 6) Hold Hands With One Another; 7) Cadillac Assembly Line; 8) Nobody Wants A Loser.
The expected sequel to Albert, every bit as forgettable for the exact same reasons. Its only difference is that King is trying even harder to reinvent himself as a cheesy party-poppin' funkster, but his «funk» is becoming blander with each passing minute. The guitar, on these numbers, sounds like a limp accessory to simplistic dance rhythms and loud-as-hell female backup vocalists, all of them probably sporting huge Afros, colorful dresses, and cocaine-heavy handbags — the usual Seventies drill. At least, this is the picture that immediately springs to mind once you hear them go "why don't you hold hands with one another, love all your sisters and brothers" ('Hold Hands With One Another', a slightly better-than-awful disco number that might have been appropriate for KC & The Sunshine Band, but as for King, I would rather hear him doing Chopin).
As usual, «reinvention» continues to go hand in hand with the traditional style; purists will be more thoroughly pleased with the seven-minute jam on 'Sensation, Communication Together', but I think the only track on the album that even vaguely reminds of the old glories is 'Cadillac Assembly Line', whose dark strings arrangement in the background adds at least a pinch of depth to the proceedings. Everything else is starkly lite, and gets as sure a thumbs down as I have ever witnessed. Must-avoid, unless nothing gives you a bigger boner than sterile 1970s R'n'B (and even then, I'm sure there's literally thousands of albums to take precedence).
KING ALBERT (1977)
1) Love Shock; 2) You Upset Me Baby; 3) Chump Chance; 4) Let Me Rock You Easy; 5) Boot Lace; 6) Love Mechanic; 7) Call My Job; 8) Good Time Charlie.
May actually be a slight improvement over the last two efforts. At least this time around there are no outward embarrassments: the pure blues quotient is raised in comparison to the funk/disco component, and even for the funk/disco component, they make a half-hearted, ultimately unsuccessful, but nevertheless honest attempt to bring it closer to the steamy-smoky sound of King's mid-Seventies Stax releases — with a little less gloss and a little less coke-soaked happiness.
Even so, it is hard to find a single song worth including on any representative retrospective compilation. Maybe 'Good Time Charlie', a soul-blues number that finishes the album on a slightly more elevated note than everything else. It only has a brief guitar solo, with the rest of the song dedicated to Albert's impersonating a little emotional drama, and although by his highest standards this is absolutely forgettable, it sounds tremendously humane next to all these mechanical creations like 'Chump Chance' or 'Love Mechanic'.
The really sad thing is that there is no feeling of the guitar as the album-driving instrument — and what, may I ask, is the point of listening to a non-guitar-centered Albert King record? Obviously, he soloes on every track, but either the solos are short, or they are drowned out in the mix; and even when they are not, they are so pro forma that you just can tell exactly how much King actually cared for this material. Not one bit. Thumbs down.
LIVE BLUES (1977)
1) Watermelon Man; 2) Don't Burn Down The Bridge; 3) Blues At Sunrise; 4) That's What The Blues Is All About; 5) Stormy Monday; 6) Kansas City; 7) I'm Gonna Call You As Soon As The Sun Goes Down; 8) Matchbox Holds My Clothes; 9) Jam In A Flat; 10) As The Years Go Passing By; 11) Overall Junction; 12) I'll Play The Blues For You.
Also available as simply Live, and — I believe — as Blues From The Road, with the latter spread over 2 CDs and featuring the entire performance, whereas current, and most widespread, editions of Live Blues truncate some of the lengthier numbers ('Jam In A Flat').
According to most sources, the tracks here were recorded at Montreux in 1975, but the exact date does not matter as long as it is clearly understood that the album reflects the "Tomato King", without any backing from Stax. Also, on some of the songs you might be surprised by a very non-King style of playing, particularly 'As The Years Go Passing By'; this is because Albert is backed by Irish guitar hero Rory Gallagher, and sometimes even condescends to duelling with him — which makes for just about the most exciting moments on this otherwise standard fare disc.
By 1975, King didn't have anything left to prove, and it was one thing to play before an unexperienced, but demanding audience of Frisco hippies whom you had to convert to your own faith, and quite another to present yourself to a jaded Montreux audience of professional jazz and blues junkies who knew exactly what they were going to get and who weren't at all ready to take no bull from the man. So he played it straight, predictable, and devoid of surprises. The backing band is slack and lazy. Gallagher does not overplay. The selections are the same old chestnuts. The licks are known by heart. Good album. Nice album. Let's move on.
THE PINCH (1977)
1) The Blues Don't Change; 2) I'm Doing Fine; 3) Nice To Be Nice (Ain't That Nice); 4) Oh, Pretty Woman; 5) King Of Kings; 6) Feel The Need; 7) Firing Line (I Don't Play With Your Woman, You Don't Play With Mine); 8) The Pinch Paid Off, Pt. 1; 9) The Pinch Paid Off, Pt. 2; 10) I Can't Stand The Rain; 11) Ain't It Beautiful.
Taking the «1977» date at face value, one might be astonished at a sudden leap in quality — all of a sudden, King can be interesting once again without going onstage. But we are still in Kansas, and miracles do not happen as frequently here as we would like them to: The Pinch is, in reality, a collection of outtakes from 1973-74 sessions, released by Fantasy Records (who had by then acquired control over the entire Stax backlog) to compete commercially with King's Tomato output — frankly speaking, though, there is no competition whatsoever, as this record is well worth all of King's «tomatoes» put together.
The first track opens the session on such a chivalrous note, in fact, that the album was later reissued under the name The Blues Don't Change (or perhaps the company just decided to withdraw the original suggestive album cover, depicting that part of the female form with which the word 'pinch' is quite commonly associated). Hymns to blues power are King's forte, since few artists of his stature are more tightly connected to the 12-bar form than Albert, and, thus, few are entitled to getting pompous and religious on the subject better than the man. You just know you have to trust him when he tells you 'I know the blues don't change', never mind the fact that this song was rolling in the stores on a parallel chronological basis with doodoo like 'Love Mechanic'.
On everything else, you know the Stax people will be there with their chuggy rhythms, and the Memphis Horns will be all funky and sweaty and cooking. Perhaps the remake of 'Oh, Pretty Woman' was not necessary (they decide to plcuk most of the anger out of the song), but the hot funk jam 'King Of Kings' (J. C. just got to be shaking his booty to that one), the long, complex R'n'B saga of 'The Pinch Paid Off', the quiet spookiness of 'I'm Doing Fine' — masterpieces or not, these are fine, well-played, driving tunes with all members of the team obviously interested in delivering quality entertainment rather than making some quick bucks on King's coattails.
A massive thumbs up, then, and I will put in a few superfluous exclamation marks as well — !!!!!!!!!!! there !!!!!!!! — so that the reader does not miss them and takes the trouble to single this record out of Albert's pool of late 1970's «tomato mediocrity» and have it round out the trilogy of his precious funk period offerings, together with I'll Play The Blues For You and I Wanna Get Funky.
NEW ORLEANS HEAT (1978)
1) Get Out Of My Life Woman; 2) Born Under A Bad Sign; 3) The Feeling; 4) We All Wanna Boogie; 5) The Very Thought Of You; 6) I Got The Blues; 7) I Get Evil; 8) Angel Of Mercy; 9) Flat Tire.
At the same time that The Pinch floated adrift in space, attracting only the most dedicated King fans where it should have attracted everybody, King's new "original" release, New Orleans Heat, was actively promoted by Tomato Records — for a moot purpose; it is neither better nor worse than King's average Tomato album, and that's not a compliment.
They did try a new move on him, teaming him up with famous R'n'B producer Allen Toussaint, responsible for long strings of 1960's and 1970's hits by a long stream of artists. But they miscalculated: Toussaint is an excellent composer and arranger, yet he knows fairly little about how to integrate these talents with a first-rate has-been blues guitar legend.
Albert was getting old, and he could be excused for not mastering any new licks or techniques at this stage; this meant generally just re-recording old standards ('Born Under A Bad Sign', 'I Get Evil', 'Angel Of Mercy', 'The Very Thought Of You' — it's always depressing to see these endless lists of remakes on old giants' records), with a lengthy generic blues jam thrown in for good measure ('I Got The Blues' — not the Rolling Stones song, unfortunately) and Toussaint's own 'Get Out Of My Life, Woman' completing the picture.
None of this is enlightening. Production values are high, as should be expected of Toussaint, but the backing band is clearly not interested in working with King; they hack all the backing out professionally and with very little spark. Some oldies are just plain ruined — the formerly snappy 'Born Under A Bad Sign' collapses under the weight of cheesy female choruses, for instance — and by the time 'I Got The Blues', with its totally robotic background, passes the five-minute mark (out of its nine minutes), I'm screaming for mercy.
King's own spirits do not seem all that high to me; he plays it safe and simple, with his guitar very much in the background much of the time. It all gets so bad that, in the end, the only number that sticks with me is the record's corniest — the lame funk workout 'We All Wanna Boogie', just because a corny Albert King at least raises more interest than a boring, by-the-book Albert King. Too bad. Totally thumbs down.
CROSSCUT SAW: ALBERT KING IN SAN FRANCISCO (1983)
1) Honey Bee; 2) Ask Me No Questions; 3) I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town; 4) They Made The Queen Welcome; 5) Floodin' In California; 6) I Found Love In The Food Stamp Line; 7) Match Box Blues; 8) Crosscut Saw; 9) Why You So Mean To Me.
After a lengthy break from recording, King reemerged for a two-album stunt in the Eighties, on Fantasy Records — the same label that had earlier bought out the Stax catalog, which does not, however, mean that it also bought out Stax's creativity and inspiration. The best I can say about this "comeback" is that, technically, this is a comeback: first time in years, King releases a pure blues album. No frills. Strictly 12-bar, strictly guitar-bass-drums, and some piano to boot.
Since the man's playing and singing have not deteriorated one bit, regardless of all the perturbations during the Tomato years, Crosscut Saw is definitely a must for fans. However, evaluating it in its historical context means recalling that we already know all these licks by heart, and that each new solo will be painfully predictable. This could have been compensated by dazzling efforts on the part of the rhythm section, but this new band of Albert's just seems to have no individuality whatsoever. Even when they pick up the tempo and start to boogie a little bit ('They Made The Queen Welcome'), I do not feel any genuine rock'n'roll excitement. These are paid people who do their job and little else.
In short, a huge disappointment. Having fully reembraced his blues roots, King has unvoluntarily joined the Eighties-up-to-present "blues revival" — a movement beautifully fit for mid-level barrooms and restaurants, but little else. I would bet anything that "Larry Burton" on rhythm guitar, "Michael Llorens" on drums, "Tony Llorens" on piano, whoever they are — actually, Larry Burton at least is a slightly well-known solo blues artist nowadays — were totally overjoyed to have the honor of backing a giant like King, but the sad truth is, they just don't do this giant any justice, steering him in the safest, most uninteresting direction possible. And a particular ugh goes for Tony Llorens' cheap piano tone.
To add insult to injury, the record is crowned by a remake of a remake (!!): a new recording of 'Crosscut Saw' which, with its two parts, imitates the re-recording of 'Crosscut Saw' on I Wanna Get Funky. Thumbs down, no doubt about it; instead of wasting your money, if you really need another Albert King record, trace down some old archive or live release from the early Seventies.
I'M IN A PHONE BOOTH, BABY (1984)
1) Phone Booth; 2) Dust My Broom; 3) The Sky Is Crying; 4) Brother, Go Ahead And Take Her; 5) Your Bread Ain't Done; 6) Firing Line (I Don't Play With Your Woman, You Don't Play With Mine); 7) The Game Goes On; 8) Truck Load Of Lovin'; 9) You Gotta Sacrifice.
King's final studio album — not just for Fantasy, but altogether — is a slight improvement over the total lifelessness of Crosscut Saw, but not by much. You know things cannot be particularly good if he starts remaking his own Tomato-era material ('Truck Load Of Lovin'), or if the best tracks on the album turn out to be million-year old Elmore James standards like 'Dust My Broom' and 'The Sky Is Crying'.
Alas, by this time it is evident that the problem lies with Albert as much as it lies with his sidemen. He is given more opportunity to show off, the backing band does not get in the way so obnoxiously, and they even bring back the horn players to try and valiantly recreate, as genuinely as possible, a classic Stax environment. But it does not work; King clearly cannot be driven into action. He just keeps playing the same tired old licks over and over again. Every doggone second of the album is more predictable than the next United Nations session, and what could be more safe and predictable than that?..
Following Phone Booth, King retired for good, and that was the wisest decision he could have made; after all, no one could, or should, have banned him from recreating his past glories live as often as he wanted, and there was quite obviously no chance left at shaping some future ones. He spent eight more years occasionally resting and occasionally touring, before passing away in 1992; some live releases may be available from these years, but they are strictly for fans, particularly those who had the bad luck of never seeing the man live in action himself.
It should, nevertheless, be stressed that the man never "sold out" completely, despite the occasionally lame trend-following on some of the Tomato records; he just slowly faded out. Pretty much all the interesting material he released from 1976 to 1984 could be stored on half an audio CD, yet none of these records tarnish his reputation the way, say, Rod Stewart's last thirty years have pretty much annihilated his. Ignore them if you do not worship the man like the celestial bulldozer some think he is, and concentrate on his Stax legacy, which will remain forever as some of the most passionate and inventive electric blues music captured on record.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO (1968/1990)
1) Watermelon Man; 2) Why You Mean To Me; 3) I Get Evil; 4) Got To Be Some Changes; 5) Personal Manager; 6) Born Under A Bad Sign; 7) Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong.
Twenty years after Live Wire established Albert's reputation as the ultimate live bluesman once and for all, someone had the great idea to go ahead and release a set of additional performances from the same Fillmore dates that produced the original album. For Albert King fans, this is not less than a Godsend. For everyone else, it should be perfectly clear why Live Wire, upon initial release, was not made into a double album: back in 1968, people sort of looked ascance at releasing the same album twice, much less at the same time.
There is nothing new whatsoever — the songs have different titles, but they're still the same two numbers: fast blues and slow blues. Even the improvisational solos are more or less the same, because, obviously, it's hard to expect Albert learning a bunch of new tricks in a matter of 24 hours. And, alas, such classic numbers as 'Born Under A Bad Sign' and 'Personal Manager', freed from the tight guidance of the Memphis Horns, pale in respect to their studio counterparts.
King gets somewhat more prominent backing from James Washington on the organ, but that's about the only difference I feel. Everything else is the same. Rating this thing is useless — either you love Albert and you get it, or you respect and like Albert and you have no need for it whatsoever, or you hate Albert and you have one more excuse for accusing the music industry of overproduction.
THURSDAY NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO (1968/1990)
1) San-Ho-Zay; 2) You Upset Me Baby; 3) Call It Stormy Monday; 4) Every Day I Have The Blues; 5) Drifting Blues; 6) I've Made Nights By Myself; 7) Crosscut Saw; 8) I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town; 9) Ooh-Ee-Baby.
It is not very hard to guess that this album does not deserve an independent review. All I can say is that, perhaps, it is quite a rational decision to market King's performances as a set of three independent records, rather than lump them all together into a deluxe 3-CD set to be sold at exorbitant prices. I seriously doubt that even a dedicated fan will be able to sit through all three discs in a row without developing a chronic syndrome of déjà vu. Even if they are so very careful to pick all the right tracks so there's no overlap with the preceding two records, all the licks are still the same — after a short while, you can start predicting the near-exact phrase Albert is gonna pick out after a particular verse.
But it is worth a little bit of money, at least, to hear the King say a touching goodbye to his Fillmore audiences at the end of 'Ooh-Ee-Baby' — "it'll be October before I can get back, got to go back East, I wish I could take everybody from San Francisco with me, mighty mighty groovy people". It's easy to get tired of the repetitive guitar playing, perhaps, but it is impossible to get tired of the charisma. Nice guy all around.
LIVE '69 (1969; 2003)
1) Introduction; 2) Why Are You So Mean To Me; 3) As The Years Go Passing By; 4) Please Come Back To Me; 5) Crosscut Saw; 6) Personal Manager.
For those who just can't get enough of «prime-time era» King, this relatively recent archival release from Tomato's vaults will temporarily quench their thirst. Unlike the Fillmore sets, this show was recorded on May 29, 1969 at a small club in Wisconsin, offering a chance to assess Albert in a somewhat more intimate and informal setting rather than Bill Graham's «kingly» environment. The sound and mix quality is not perfect, but decent enough not to pay it a lot of attention — at least, the guitar was properly miked, and whenever the big guy gets to solo (which, predictably, occupies about 80% of the running time), his wailing rises high and above everything else, including the horns section (which he'd only added recently — not that it matters a lot, since the horns are actually quite poorly miked, and never add much to the overall sound).
The setlist is short and far from perfect: at the center of the album sits ʽPlease Come Back To Meʼ, a completely generic piece of 12-bar blues stretched out to a 17-minute running time. Albert puts in as much fire as he can, but even he cannot help repeating all of his trademark licks and bends for at least several times over those seventeen minutes, and if you already know them by heart from the Fillmore days, you won't be particularly happy having to go through them all over again. On the other hand, this is at least partially compensated by the only (I think) officially released live version of ʽAs The Years Go Passing Byʼ from the Sixties — sung and played beautifully, with a couple soul-probing solos where «every note counts», and with the guitar so high in the mix and the club acoustics so pressing in on you that the experience can be quite mind-blowing.
For serious fans, I think, the inclusion of that song alone is well worth the price; most of the others would probably be happier if some of the jamming were cut to make way for a ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ or, at least, for more contemporary material (from Years Gone By, for instance) — represented here only by a brief instrumental snippet of ʽYou Don't Love Meʼ in the introduction. On the other hand, Live '69 is as good a first introduction into the live blues power of Albert King as anything else. Also, the basic guitar tone is thicker and lower here than the thin, shrill tone we hear on the Fillmore records — probably a different set of amps, since the man seems to be playing the same Flying-V model as usual. So if you like your King «plumper» rather than «leaner», this record might even have a small edge on the classic Fillmore stuff, from that aspect at least.
THE LOST SESSION (1971; 1986)
1) She Won't Gimme No Lovin'; 2) Cold In Hand; 3) Stop Lying; 4) All The Way Down; 5) Tell Me What True Love Is; 6) Down The Road I Go; 7) Money Lovin' Women; 8) Sun Gone Down (take 1); 9) Brand New Razor; 10) Sun Gone Down (take 2).
When you're climbing up the rugged heights of that awesome garbage heap called popular music, remember this: not everything that is lost obligatorily deserves to be found. In fact, more often than not there is a pretty good reason for The Thing to have gotten lost. Of course, if you're a scientist, this golden rule does not apply in the least — but this is why it would be nice if quite a few of these CDs, instead of silly rating stickers, bore something more informative, like, «FOR HISTORICAL RESEARCH AND SEXUAL GRATIFICATION PURPOSES ONLY».
The Lost Session is not even well-qualified for the former. It is simply ten chunks of a lengthy jam that Albert took part in at Wolfman Jack Studios in L. A. in August 1971, in collaboration with British blues guru John Mayall. The liner notes, written by Lee Hildebrand in a very clear and intelligent manner, make the best justification possible for this collaboration, explaining that the gentlemen wanted to do something radically different from Albert's usual Stax style, and that they achieved it by fusing together "Delta blues, British blues, and Los Angeles jazz".
This is a great way of putting it, but I, for one, do not so easily understand the charms of a synthesis between "Delta blues" and "British blues", given that the latter is essentially a derived function of the former (so there's something vaguely incestuous about that picture). And as for 'Los Angeles jazz', it is essentially represented by a couple of sax and trumpet solos on a couple of the jams; they do sound different from the instrumental passages on King's regular albums, but they're hardly more eyebrow-raising than, say, AC/DC's one and only use of bagpipes on one and only one of their songs — and you hardly bought the album for that moment.
So, if the very idea of a partnership between a giant of American and a giant of British blues is enough to get you shaking, feel free to get lost in The Session. But if, overwhelmed by the flood of electric blues albums, you feel more like getting your kicks out of the 'real special' ones, I doubt this archive release passes the test. I cannot even name one particular highlight. Musicianship is fine, sound is clean, but the thumbs are down all the same. Give me the Stax sound over this unexperimental experiment any time of day.
BLUES AT SUNRISE (1973; 1988)
1) Don't Burn Down The Bridge ('Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across); 2) I Believe To My Soul; 3) For The Love Of A Woman; 4) Blues At Sunrise; 5) I'll Play The Blues For You; 6) Little Brother (Make A Way); 7) Roadhouse Blues.
This is a pretty good example of Albert's early 1970s live sound, well worth owning if only because he somehow missed releasing a live album back then, in its own time, which would make Blues At Sunrise a significant addition to the blues addict's collection. Recorded in July 1973 at the famous Montreux Festival, it catches King at the early stage of his "funkier" period, so the setlist is predictably heavy on songs from I'll Play The Blues For You with a few respectable oldies, like the title track, thrown on for balance.
The affair is certainly less stripped than the Fillmore concerts: King is backed by a full brass section — understandable, since his records from that period depend even more on the horns than Born Under A Bad Sign — and also his second guitarist, Donald Kinsey, is given quite a bit of prominence, even "dueling" with the King on the lengthier jams. He's quite competent, but it's also quite likely that Albert let him take center stage only to emphasize his own brilliance (a morally questionable trick that Eric Clapton so loves to reproduce during his own shows).
Another reason to own this is that King is exploring heavier, more "electrified" guitar tones in this live setting, than the thin, shrill tone he is usually known for on his studio and earlier live records. Listening to these performances in their chronological place, one can get the impression that he was just given this new guitar two days ago and wanted to test its abilities — there's plenty of new licks here that aren't usually associated with King, and his reliance on the power of vibrato is entirely unprecedented; he ends up sounding like Hendrix from time to time. You only have to go back once to the studio version of 'Don't Burn Down The Bridge' to understand that this Montreux version blows it away completely — provided you respect "heavy blues", of course, and do not hold the conviction that extra heaviness kills off the delicate subtleties and is much better suited for emotionally deaf nitwits.
For fact lovers, 'I Believe To My Soul' is the original Ray Charles tune (somewhat sad to hear it without the trademark piano chords, though), and King even preserves the old lyrics ('...when you know my name is Ray' — do we?); 'Roadhouse Blues', however, is not the Doors song, but rather just another generic ten-minute jam that sounds exactly like the other generic ten-minute jam ('Blues At Sunrise'). But it's Albert King, and it's a cool sound, especially when after the so-so solo of Kinsey comes the shotgun blast of Albert. Also, 'For The Love Of A Woman' is set to the exact rhythm pattern of 'Crossroads' as arranged by Cream during their live performances, so for all it's worth, you might think of this performance as King's tribute to Cream. Oh, and thumbs are up, of course. This is quite definitely treasurable.
FUNKY LONDON (1972-1974?; 1994)
1) Cold Sweat; 2) Can't You See What You're Doing To Me; 3) Funky London; 4) Lonesome; 5) Bad Luck; 6) Sweet Fingers; 7) Finger On The Trigger; 8) Driving Wheel; 9) Lovingest Woman In Town..
A bunch of outtakes from some of King's Stax sessions from the early Seventies (possibly earlier as well, I'm not informed of the recording dates). The review will be brief: there is only one track here that guarantees the purchase, which is the instrumental cover of James Brown's 'Cold Sweat' — King's worship of Brown could be out of place when he tried to imitate Brown's audience teasing manners on stage, but it worked all right when he simply did funky James Brown numbers with his faithful rhythm section, embellishing them with his blues licks. This here 'Cold Sweat' chugs along almost as fine as the original, and will also please those who dislike Brown's neglect for melody, because that's exactly what King's guitar adds to the proceedings.
Everything else is stuff we have heard a million times in better or equal quality. Most of it is by the numbers blues that, to me, gives the impression of rehearsal material, performed in warm-up purposes before the recording of King's truly serious contributions to his official albums. It's all tight and solid, but strictly sparkless. The title track, another funky instrumental, stands out a little simply by being funkier than the rest, but 'Cold Sweat' displays more energy and enthusiasm.
I have this on a CD that's paired with the earlier semi-official Live At Wattstax album, recorded at about the same time as Blues At Sunrise, and in terms of basic passion, it is much better, except all of its songs ('Killing Floor', 'I'll Play The Blues For You', etc.) have already been played live with the same fire on other releases. Bottomline: all of this is heavily expendable, although not for the dedicated fan.
IN SESSION WITH STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (1983; 1999)
1) Call It Stormy Monday; 2) Old Times; 3) Pride And Joy; 4) Ask Me No Questions; 5) Pep Talk; 6) Blues At Sunrise; 7) Turn It Over; 8) Overall Junction; 9) Match Box Blues; 10) Who Is Stevie; 11) Don't Lie To Me.
A recording that pits one of the greatest blues stars of the «old school» against one of the brightest blues legends of the «new school» should be predictably boring and boringly predictable, and In Session does not dissapoint — it is so by-the-bookishly great that I could not tolerate its presence in the foreground for even five seconds before my attention would slip away to something different. Which, of course, does not in the least prohibit this recording, and also the accompanying video program, from enduring and enjoying a legendary status.
Although both the album and the video obviously belong in the discographies of both artists, the field here largely belongs to King — he is, after all, the older one, and does his best to appear in the role of the wise master teacher (on ʽPep Talkʼ, he is hilariously pushing Stevie towards perfectionism: "the better you get, the harder you work, you can't say, ʽI've got it madeʼ... you're already pretty good, but you're gonna get better" — "that's the whole point", the Texas kid replies humbly and politely, instead of "fuck you dad" which he was probably thinking at the moment). It is said that, when he was approached about recording a session with Vaughan, he initially declined, not knowing who Vaughan was — then realized it was the «little Stevie» he'd allowed to sit in with himself during some of his earlier Texas shows, and once it became clear that the session could be conducted in this «father-son» manner, things started getting easier.
Anyway, what we have here is a selection of blues classics, mostly from the standard repertoire of Albert's, with one Stevie number (ʽPride And Joyʼ) graciously accepted for balance (the video and audio releases have significantly differing tracklists, by the way, so any fan should consider owning both), and interrupted by bits of studio banter, mostly from King reminiscing about the old times (such as playing ʽBlues At Sunriseʼ at the Fillmore with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the same time). Stevie, on the verge of his big breakthrough, is in good form, and Albert was never in bad form as long as the material was adequate. The obvious question is — how are they up for teamwork, and does that teamwork offer any extra revelations?
One thing I must confess is that, throughout the endless blues jamming, I was not always able to tell who of the two was taking the lead (referring to the audio soundtrack only, of course). As different as King's and Vaughan's blues playing styles generally are, when seated together and focused on the same thing, the two players seem to have drifted almost uncomfortably close to each other, with Stevie in particular wanting to impress Albert by feeding him back trademark Albert licks (or, when asked for it, as on ʽBlues At Sunriseʼ, some trademark Hendrix licks: "this is where you gotta play Jimi's part", King says, and the disciple obeys). Albert himself also rises to the occasion and plays the whole show as fluent, loud, screechy, and well-rounded as possible: no flubs or retro-style minimalist passages that would date him as somebody out of the 1950s.
The result is a curious «merger» that, paradoxically, seems to lower the sheer entertainment value of the experience — with two blues greats trading solos played in similar styles, what's the major use of having them engage in these lengthy jams at all? In the end, it all looks more like a textbook of possible blues licks, created by the two with the aim of educating their audiences about the blues rather than having themselves some fun. As a textbook, it is beyond reproach: you could hardly wish for a more awesome combination of stellar players if you are in the mood for some star-powered blues-rock. But I do not think that either Stevie or Albert are at their most «natural» here — to achieve that proverbial «chemistry», they play it too safe around each other.
Most of the reviews I've encountered for In Session were glowing, but I really wonder how many of them weren't already following a pre-set bias (if you get Vaughan and King together on one record, and if they find a way to gel together, then this has to be good because there is no way it could ever be bad). Well, actually, there are relatively few of these «super-sessions» that would eclipse the individual highlights of the superstars, and this is no exception — to truly appreciate these people, you need to look at them separately, not together. Did they make history on that night? Would be hard to deny that. Isn't it great to have a whole hour of high-quality footage of Albert King's playing (so rare to come across in general)? Sure is. Did I have a right to expect more than what I got? Yes, I did. No, I did not. Why should this super-session be different from any other super-session?..
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1921-1923)
1) He's A Darn Good Man (To Have Hanging 'Round); 2) How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long; 3) Bring Back The Joys; 4) Some Day Sweetheart; 5) Down Hearted Blues; 6) Why Did You Pick Me Up When I Was Down; 7) Gonna Have You — Ain't Gonna Leave You Alone; 8) Daddy Blues; 9) Don't Pan Me; 10) After All These Years; 11) I'm Going Away Just To Wear You Off My Mind (take 1); 12) I'm Going Away Just To Wear You Off My Mind (take 2); 13) Jazzin' Baby Blues (take 1); 14) Jazzin' Baby Blues (take 2); 15) You Can't Have It All; 16) Lonesome Monday Morning Blues; 17) Come On Home; 18) You Shall Reap Just What You Sow; 19) T'Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness; 20) If You Want To Keep Your Daddy Home; 21) Bleeding Hearted Blues; 22) Chirping The Blues.
Blues queens of the 1920s generally fall into three categories. There are the Power Gals, whose trick is to overwhelm the listener with superhuman strength and passion — could be just brute force, like Ma Rainey, or mixed with subtlety, as in the case of Empress Bessie, but power and aggression are the key in all cases. Then there are the Hooligans, like Mamie Smith or Lucille Hegamin, who sound like screechy, sexy, mischievous schoolgirls that are out there to have a very naughty time, above everything else. These ones sound more dated today, but are a terrific reflection of the swingin' era none the less.
Then there's the third, initially least noticeable, but eventually recognizable category: the stately, no-bull "Ladies of the Blues", those that generally avoid the more salacious, wang-wangy side of the blues, and try to push it closer to the white crooners of the day. Among these, Alberta Hunter was arguably the leader. The approach did not pay off well: history generally prefers those who like to take a little risk, and it is possible that Hunter's name would have been wiped off the slate entirely — and unjustly — had she not had the luck of getting a "comeback" chance in her late years, the only blues queen of younger days to actually record and perform live for a bewildered generation five or six decades removed from her golden age.
As it is, she has a slightly better chance to appear on the pages of musical encyclopaedias than, say, Ethel Waters, and this is good news, since these early tunes are quite enjoyable. The first volume of Complete Recorded Works collects all of the records cut for, first, the Black Swan label and then Paramount, who lured her over with a better contract after the initial two singles, in 1921-1923, along with a couple well-preserved alternate takes. Sound quality is tolerable — you get to hear not only the voice, but the musical accompaniment as well, generally provided on the piano by the notorious Fletcher Henderson. (The Complete Recorded Works series never bother much about removing any hiss-and-scratch, though, so do not expect Fletcher Henderson to be the only accompaniment).
Connoisseurs of Bessie Smith will undoubtedly recognize some of her own later standards — 'Down Hearted Blues', 'T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness', and 'Bleeding Hearted Blues' are all here, and as much as Bessie makes them her own, Alberta's renditions, although more "croony" and generic in tone and arrangement, are quite worth hearing as well (not to mention the trifling fact that 'Down Hearted Blues' was actually written by her). Adhering closely to the respectable standards of ladies' conduct, she allows but tiny drops of overt sentiment; you have to get past the conventionalities of the genre to get at the "heart" behind it, and if you do not succeed, you are not to be blamed — I myself find the superficial trappings more enticing than the essence, and have a hard time rethinking that.
Still, in between her lovely and rather idiosyncratic voice, Henderson's tasteful and inventive piano playing, and generally well-chosen blues (or, rather, "vaudeville-blues") standards, these early records are fine party-poppers, with only the cracks and hisses threatening to turn them into party-poopers. Thumbs up.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 2 (1923-1924)
1) Someone Else Will Take Your Place; 2) Vamping Brown; 3) You Can Have My Man If He Comes To See You Too; 4) Aggravatin' Papa; 5) I'm Going Away To Wear You Off My Mind; 6) Loveless Love; 7) You Can Take My Man But You Can't Keep Him Long; 8) Bring It With You When You Come; 9) Mistreated Blues; 10) Michigan Water Blues (take 2); 11) Down South Blues; 12) Michigan Water Blues (take 4); 13) Stingaree Blues; 14) You Can't Do What My Last Man Did; 15) Experience Blues; 16) Sad 'n' Lonely Blues; 17) Miss Anna Brown; 18) Maybe Someday (take 1); 19) Maybe Someday (take 2); 20) Old Fashioned Love; 21) If The Rest Of The World Don't Want You; 22) It's Gonna Be A Cold, Cold Winter; 23) Parlor Social De Luxe.
The second volume is somewhat less exciting than the first (if the term «exciting» is at all applicable to these discs); it has a notably lower proportion of «classic» numbers — 'Aggravatin' Papa', perhaps, and 'Down South Blues', it has a notably higher proportion of awfully sounding tracks, especially at the beginning — hold on to your ears, it does get better as it goes along; and it certainly does not contain any unexpected surprises. Peculiarities that catch the ear a little firmer include the unusually strongly delivered 'Bring It With You When You Come' and a silly comic dialog with jazz drummer Sonny Greer on the last track.
Covered material is also generally quite light here: even a song like 'Sad 'n' Lonely Blues' is delivered with enough gaiety to make you forget about its title and return to its deep-hidden meaning only when the hangover sets in. But then, with all due respect, Alberta ain't no Bessie, and these early tracks ain't nothing but gallant, high-class entertainment.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 3 (1924-1927)
1) Everybody Loves My Baby; 2) Texas Moaner Blues; 3) Nobody Knows The Way I Feel 'Dis Morning; 4) Early Every Morn; 5) Cake Walking Babies (From Home); 6) Your Jelly Roll Is Good; 7) Take That Thing Away; 8) Everybody Does It Now; 9) A Master Man With A Master Mind; 10) Don't Want It All; 11) I'm Hard To Satisfy; 12) Empty Cellar Blues; 13) Double Crossin' Papa; 14) You For Me, Me For You; 15) I'm Tired Blues; 16) Wasn't It Nice?; 17) Everybody Mess Around; 18) Don't Forget To Mess Around; 19) Heebie Jeebies; 20) I'll Forgive You 'Cause I Love You; 21) I'm Gonna Lose Myself Way Down In Louisville; 22) My Old Daddy's Got A Brand New Way To Love; 23) I'm Down Right Now But I Won't Be Down Always.
The third volume in the series is arguably the best. First, there is a dramatic increase in sound quality: for all the hype around Paramount, its records were known for horrendously low fidelity, and even if that was not the main reason for Alberta's jump to Gennett in 1924 and then to Okeh in 1925, it is still mighty fine for the fans that she did make that jump. The Gennett records, in particular, sound unusually crisp and sharp; alas, the songs on them are not among Alberta's best material. The cracks and pops come back on Okeh, but in a moderate manner.
With such an increase in quality, one can finally start noticing all the subtle nuances in Hunter's singing: she was, quite clearly, maturing as a singer, perhaps striving to bring out all her hitherto undisclosed sides under the pressures of competition; by the end of 1923, the "Blues Queens" era had mobilized a veritable swarm of mighty singers, and it was certainly harder to compete with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith than with Lucille Hegamin and Mamie Smith. But Alberta almost rises to the challenge, toughening up her act, yet still sounding "lady-like". 'You For Me, Me For You', for instance, where she is only accompanied by a modest piano backing, is a great example: strong and protective, but gentle in overtones.
She even engages in singing more provocative stuff, rich on double-entendres — on one record at least (Okeh 8268), where the A-side is 'Take That Thing Away' (what thing?) and the B-side is 'Your Jelly Roll Is Good' (no comment necessary). And she lets her hair down on faster, merrier, speakeasy-friendly numbers more frequently than before (the classic chestnut 'Cake Walking Babies (From Home)'; 'Heebie Jeebies', etc.). All in all, fans of the Roaring Decade will probably get a kick out of at least half of these performances. There's also supposed to be some Louis Armstrong backup on a few of them, but I do not know where exactly.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 4 (1927-c. 1946)
1) Sugar; 2) Beale Street Blues; 3) I'm Going To See My Ma; 4) Gimme All The Love You Got; 5) My Particular Man; 6) Driftin' Tide; 7) You Can't Tell The Difference After Dark; 8) Second Hand Man; 9) Send Me A Man; 10) Chirpin' The Blues; 11) Downhearted Blues; 12) I'll See You Go; 13) Fine And Mellow; 14) Yelping Blues; 15) Someday, Sweetheart; 16) The Love I Have For You; 17) My Castle's Rockin'; 18) Boogie-Woogie Swing; 19) I Won't Let You Down; 20) Take Your Big Hands Off; 21) He's Got A Punch Like Joe Louis.
Unlike so many other blues queens, Alberta Hunter did not have her career seriously cut down by the Depression, because even in her prime she would not have too many recordings, and by 1927, sessions had all but ended, with the lady embarking on a lengthy revue trip to Europe and, then, eventually and gradually, shifting to other lines of duty (such as troop entertaining) and, after the war, going to nursing school and engaging in healthcare.
Paradoxically, it is exactly this career fluctuation that makes Vol. 4 into the most intriguing and diverse unit in the series. It has no big hits or classics and represents a patchwork of scattered sessions, with much of the material even remaining unreleased for half a century and some of it with uncertain recording dates. But, with improving recording technologies, her singing has never been clearer and cleaner, and her vaudeville repertoire never as variegated.
The real gem here are the first three songs, from a 1927 session where Alberta is backed by Fats Waller on organ — a pretty exotic arrangement for the time, and she rises to the task admirably, particularly on 'Sugar', where she faithfully tries to sound like sugar herself, and her sucrosey notes, meshing with Waller's virtuoso playing and creaky old production, yield a truly phantasmagoric effect. (Especially knockout-like if you hear it after playing the previous three volumes one after the other with no breaks.)
The second gem is a long-lost New York session from 1935, on which she is backed by piano and very prominent acoustic guitar, resulting in a Lonnie Johnson kind of sound; the highlight is 'Driftin' Tide', more of a crooner than anything blues-like in form, but with Hunter's blues sensitivity replacing the croon. Different, but likable.
Later sessions, from 1939 and the early 1940s, are even more of a hodge-podge: traditional blues, whitebread ballads, early boogie-woogie, whatever works. Complete is not quite the right word for it, seeing as how no material from her European sessions is present, but it is debatable whether the latter holds any importance (she used to record straightforward pop material with Jack Jackson's orchestra). As for these late numbers, none of them were hits, but who cares? From 1921 to 1946, there's really only two types of Alberta Hunter records: the good ones are those that you can hear and the bad ones are those that you cannot, and — technological progress be blessed — on this volume, there are no bad ones.
AMTRAK BLUES (1980)
1) The Darktown Strutters Ball; 2) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; 3) I'm Having A Good Time; 4) Always; 5) My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More; 6) Amtrak Blues; 7) Old Fashioned Love; 8) Sweet Georgia Brown; 9) A Good Man Is Hard To Find; 10) I've Got A Mind To Ramble.
In 1954, Alberta Hunter quit show business for good — or so it seemed — and embarked on a nursing career instead, for a bunch of personal reasons (such as shock from her mother's death) and some objective ones — such as not really being needed in the business any longer. For more than twenty years, she did nothing but nursing, with just a couple spontaneous guest appearances on recordings by «old artists», e. g. the somewhat uncomfortably titled Songs We Taught Your Mother project from 1961, where she sang together with Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey, being unquestionably the biggest star of the three.
In 1977 her hospital promptly gave Alberta her walking papers, probably expecting the lady to dine with Bessie Smith any day now — ironically, this turned out to be one of the most convenient firing events in history, as it prompted Hunter to try out the stage once more. Too old to nurse, too young to die, just the right age to perform, she thought, so she started trying out various places in the Village — wisest choice of all possible ones — and ended up with a triumphant comeback, first on stage, then on film (in Robert Altman's Remember My Name), finally on record, signed to Columbia and releasing four albums before finally kicking it in 1984.
The only one that is still easy to find today is Amtrak Blues from 1980, ten songs from Alberta's deep-reaching back catalog (odd enough, though, only 'Old Fashioned Love' overlaps with her 1920s recordings) that Columbia wisely let her record with the Gerald Cook quartet (a band of pros almost as seasoned as Alberta herself) rather than any unexperienced young whippersnappers: as a result, the sound is fully authentic and never «retro».
On its own, Amtrak Blues is a pretty little jazz-blues collection that makes up for excellent background music. But it goes without saying that it is not the kind of album that should really be appreciated «on its own». The point is that it is an album from 1980, recorded by an artist whose date of birth is usually given as 1895 — if, «on its own», it were barely listenable, it would still have been a priceless historical document, but if, «on its own», it is enjoyable, it is nothing less than a historical masterpiece.
Of course, Hunter's voice now sounds like an old woman's voice is supposed to sound: deep, croaking, gruff, a far cry from the gallant silkiness of her old records (at least, what frequencies of that gallant silkiness one can still make out from behind the wall of hiss). But then she is not singing opera, she is groaning the blues, and this age-bound change gives her the same kind of grit that, in the 1920s, actually defined her competition — like Ma Rainey or Memphis Minnie. Now, in the Reagan era, it makes her the last remaning spokesperson for all these ladies; she is more than Alberta Hunter, she is Blues Queen Incarnate.
And she does sing well — not just «well for someone over 80», but «well for anyone who sings the blues». She charms you with her slyness, such as, for instance, starting out slow and cool on the first verse of 'The Darktown Strutters' Ball' before charging up the tempo and inviting everyone to bop along as if 'old age' were a purely psychological concept (which it is). Even on the sinuous double entendre numbers — such as 'My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More' — there is no trace of the ridiculous. Certainly, no one can stop the skepticist from complaining about lines like 'he churns my butter' coming from the lips of an octogenarian. But I would pity the skepticist, unable to feel the still young spirit behind the old body.
For most people, including myself, the evident highlight would be 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out', simply because it is the most outstanding and well-known composition on here, and because Hunter does it full justice (from Bessie's classic repertoire, she also sings 'A Good Man Is Hard To Find'; being the last of the great old divas still alive and kicking, she did a great job promoting and preserving the memory of her generation). Yet, of course, Amtrak Blues is not about individual songs — it is about the pleasures of survival against all odds, and it is so wildly successful on the intellectual level that it seriously influences the emotional level as well, and gets a decisive thumbs up from both.
THE GLORY OF ALBERTA HUNTER (1982)
1) Ezequiel Saw The Wheel; 2) I've Had Enough; 3) Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams; 4) Some Of These Days; 5) The Glory Of Love; 6) You Can't Tell The Difference After Dark; 7) I Love You Much Too Much; 8) I Cried For You; 9) The Love I Have For You; 10) Sometimes I'm Happy; 11) Give Me That Old Time Religion.
Amtrak Blues is the best known (and the only easily available) album from Alberta's later days, but, in fact, she really hits her second stride with The Glory, released but two years before her death. The difference may not be too crucial, but I believe I smell it — here is a singer that no longer feels even the least bit uncomfortable about being over 80, boosted by a new wave of public and critical success, re-accustomed once more to entertaining audiences and singing «into the can», as they used to say.
The Glory has a little bit of everything: blues, jazz, cabaret, schmaltz, even two gospel numbers that bookmark the record's two ends. The worst numbers — ballads whose sentimentalism obscures their melodic value — are still entertaining as retrothings, respectable if only for the performer's tenacity; and the best numbers are fun on their very own.
Unsurprisingly, the two major highlights are the ones on which Ms. Hunter gets real down and dirty: a re-recording of 'You Can't Tell The Difference After Dark', and 'I've Had Enough' which, to the best of my knowledge, was not a part of her previous studio repertoire. The former has, of course, acquired a triple entendre by now: 'I may not be so appealin', but I've got that certain feelin', she tells us with a little mix of pride and embarrassment, 'and you can't tell the difference after dark'. You bet your life we can't.
'I've Had Enough (Alberta's Blues)', in the meantime, gives us the toughest incarnation of Alberta Hunter ever found on any record of her career — you'd generally expect this kind of material from the likes of Big Mama Thornton. But she pulls it off splendidly, wrapping things up with an unforgettable coda of bye-byes to her brutal lover: 'goodbye, sayonara, au revoir, kalimera, auf Wiedersehen, bonne nuit... ah yeah — hasta la vista!.. ouch... get lost!' A little forced, perhaps, and she mispronounces kalimera as kalismera, but the main intention was to get us hooked and charmed, and she got us hooked and charmed.
That intention is so strong, in fact, that she even sings in Yiddish on one track ('I Love You Much Too Much'), and saves the album's most upbeat performances, the catchy vaudeville of 'Sometimes I'm Happy' and the breakneck gospel trance of 'Give Me That Old Time Religion', for last. Perhaps these songs will not linger too long in anybody's memory, but the point is, as long as the record is playing, you sense a feeling of ecstasy, a "wow, now here is someone who really enjoys living and gets a true kick out of it!" reaction. Then you realize that «someone» is 87 years old, and that you have just been shown a standard of living that you yourself will never ever be able to reach — but at least you have some sort of ideal to aspire to.
For this ray of optimism and bout of enthusiasm, the perfectly titled Glory Of Alberta Hunter gets a glorious thumbs up. She had the time to record one more LP — Look For The Silver Lining (1983), unfortunately, almost impossible to find — before finally kicking it in 1984, but I am pretty sure that, whatever her current occupation in Paradise is, it has little to do with nursing. Bet my own salvation that God can't tell much difference after dark, either.
BLUES, BARRELHOUSE & BOOGIE WOOGIE (1946-1955; 1996)
CD I: 1) After Midnite; 2) My Baby's Boogying; 3) Down The Road Apiece; 4) Amos' Blues; 5) Amos' Boogie; 6) Operation Blues; 7) Cinch Blues; 8) Everything I Do Is Wrong; 9) Blues At Sundown; 10) Money Hustlin' Woman; 11) Sad And Blue; 12) Mean Woman; 13) Aladdin Boogie; 14) Nickel Plated Baby; 15) Real Gone; 16) Rainy Weather Blues; 17) Train Whistle Blues; 18) Train Time Blues; 19) Bye Bye Boogie; 20) Pot Luck Boogie; 21) It's A Married Woman; 22) My Tortured Mind; CD II: 1) Hold Me Baby; 2) Chicken Shack Boogie; 3) Hard Driving Blues; 4) I'm Gonna Leave You; 5) Pool-Playing Blues; 6) Rocky Road Blues (take 1); 7) Rocky Road Blues (take 2); 8) Lonesome For The Blues; 9) Slow Down Blues; 10) Anybody's Blues; 11) It Took A Long, Long Time; 12) Wolf On The River; 13) Frank's Blues; 14) Empty Arms Blues; 15) A&M Blues; 16) Won't You Kinda Think It Over; 17) Jitterbug Fashion Parade; 18) My Luck Is Bound To Change; 19) Roomin' House Boogie; 20) Walkin' Blues; 21) Blue And Lonesome; 22) Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby; CD III: 1) Drifting Blues; 2) Untitled Boogie; 3) Melting Blues; 4) Boogie Woogie; 5) Atomic Baby; 6) Sax Shack Boogie; 7) Birmingham Bounce; 8) Let's Rock A While; 9) Hard Luck Blues; 10) Two Years Of Torture; 11) Bad Bad Whiskey; 12) Tears, Tears, Tears; 13) Put Something In My Hand; 14) Trouble In Mind; 15) Flying Home; 16) Let Me Go Home, Whiskey; 17) Please Mr. Johnson; 18) Let's Have A Party; 19) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer; 20) Good, Good Whiskey; 21) After Awhile; 22) I Guess I'll Go.
Jump blues is an all but completely forgotten genre these days, having miserably fallen through the cracks — too primitive and formulaic for jazz fans, too wimpy for rock'n'rollers; the fact that the best of the «jumpers» managed to create a unique vibe of sorts, partially borrowed, but also partially wiped out by rock'n'roll, is not enough to make people remember names like Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris — only the fact that Elvis covered both the former ('Shake, Rattle & Roll') and the latter ('Good Rockin' Tonight') is.
Unfortunately, Elvis did not cover Amos Milburn (Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker did, but their reputation, even pooled, is still no match for the King), and his current popularity amounts to little more than a footnote. Injustice a-plenty: unlike Big Joe and Wynonie, great powerhouse belters whose talents, nevertheless, can be fully assessed by sampling three or four of their best recordings, Milburn was one of the very few jump blues performers whose main talent lay in the playing — simply put, he was one of the most accomplished pianists of his epoch. Naturally, it makes no sense to compare him to the likes of demi-gods like Art Tatum, as he was way more limited in scope and technique by the very nature of the popular entertainment genre. But as far as that genre went, Milburn can honestly be said to have explored every nook and cranny.
For those totally unfamiliar with the man, let's just say that his sound was a direct influence on Fats Domino, as well as Chuck Berry's Johnnie Johnson — some of the piano runs on 'Down The Road Apiece' made it directly on to Chuck's version, and from there, became distributed between Keith Richards and Ian Stewart on the Stones' version — and on Jerry Lee Lewis. The latter, certainly, banged on his keys with way more reckless abandon than Amos could ever allow himself, but lagged far behind in terms of technique and inventiveness. In all, Milburn probably was to the piano, during the late 1940s, much the same as T-Bone Walker was to the electric guitar: the inventor of a new language, one that would take firm hold a decade later, and then go on living without a good memory of its own forefather.
The completest way to get acknowledged with Milburn's legacy is through the five- or six-volume Chronological Classics series that attempts to collect all of his recordings for the Aladdin label from 1946 to 1957, although I believe the label only got as far as 1953 before going bankrupt, and some of these volumes are already notoriously hard to get at a normal price. There was also a limited-time-issue boxset of 7 CDs, The Complete Aladdin Recordings, which, last time I checked it out, went for $425 on Amazon, and sky's the limit. But, of course, these buys are for the nutty ones; regular guys like us can find perfect satisfaction in smaller collections, since, like every respectable performer from that time period, Amos was never above recording the exact same tune over and over and over again.
Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie-Woogie is a currently out-of-print, but still findable, 3-CD compilation of what somebody thought to be the best and most representative tracks of Milburn's top recording years. It does not have all the big hits — like the dusky ballad 'Bewildered', for instance, which can be found on additional smaller compilations — but it does have around 95% of them, along with lots of lesser B-sides and, so I gather, a bunch of stuff from the vaults as well. The tracks are more or less arranged in chronological order of recording, and the sound quality is as fine as one could demand from the era; no need to turn on the «Forced Ignorance of Cracks and Hisses» switch in the back of your mind.
Listening to these recordings on a track-by-track basis clearly establishes that Milburn's best stuff was recorded around 1946-48, when the major attraction was Amos himself: his unexceptional, but nice singing voice, and his exceptional, if formula-limited, piano playing. As time went by, he started relying more on his backing bands: a lot of electric guitar and brass soloing eventually pushes the piano out of focus, which is too bad, since the electric guitar is not T-Bone Walker level and the brass ain't no Tympany Five. Also, the rate of boogie-woogie to slow blues gradually decreases throughout the years, especially after Milburn fell upon the winning formula of the «drinking shuffle» with 'Bad, Bad Whiskey' in 1950 — a formula that subdued and charmed black drinkers all across the States, but did not obligatorily surmise fast rhythms or flashy playing.
In those early years, though, Milburn was magic, as evidenced already on 'After Midnite' that opens the album. Generic slow-moving 12-bar blues? Sure. For that matter, Chuck Berry's 'In The Wee Wee Hours' is the exact same song. But Johnnie Johnson was just a supporting player on that tune, his ivories buried deep in the background; Milburn, who came earlier, pushes them up front, and accompanies each of the generic sung bars with a different improvised run. He is a good master of «sonic painting» — listen to how the line "the blues is falling, just like drops of rain" is immediately followed by piano-generated drops of rain ('Rainy Weather Blues') — and an even better mathematician-as-musician: the long instrumental workout on 'Down The Road Apiece' is a prime example of melodic calculation, with amazingly elegant, symmetric constructions materializing from under his fingers in an endless sequence (as I already hinted at, this «engineering» approach was well understood and respected by both Berry and Richards on their respective versions — actually, listening to all three versions in a row makes it clear that Keith must have been inspired by the original as well).
Stuff like 'Amos' Boogie' is «rock'n'roll in all but name», as they say, and a lot more ass-kicking than much of the stuff that bears that name just because it happened to come out later. Even if Milburn was not the only accomplished boogie player around town at the time, there are still few, if any, other places where you can hear such a distilled sound. Meade Lux Lewis, perhaps, or Pete Johnson, but the former did not record all that much, and the latter always got overshadowed by whoever he was accompanying. This here is pristine stuff.
The material on the two later-period discs is not as consistently exciting, yet there are still classic R'n'B hits out there that are well worth getting to know: the humorous 'Chicken Shack Boogie', its equally humorous remake as 'Sax Shack Boogie', and, of course, out of all the innumerable drinking songs — 'One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer', which most people know as that John Lee Hooker classic, but the song was just as relevant to Milburn.
Still, it is worth repeating that it is possible to play the sixty-six tracks on here in a row without going mad, which is much more than could be said about most of Milburn's competition during those years. Like everybody else, he was churning these recordings out like newspapers, without giving any serious thought to «individuality» or «innovation» — it's just the old 45s going out of print and the new ones replacing them. But, being stuck in the role of a commercial entertainer, he could still have the mindset of a freedom-riding improviser, and as similar as all these tunes are, only a very select few repeat each other note-for-note. (Granted, this may not hold for his entire output — we probably owe a big thank you to those responsible for the selection). If that is not enough to freeze the man in whatever Hall of Fame is willing to contain him, I don't know what is. Thumbs up, of course.
THE MOTOWN SESSIONS (1962-1964; 1996)
1) My Daily Prayer; 2) My Baby Gave Me Another Chance; 3) I'm In My Wine; 4) I'll Make It Up To You Somehow; 5) Don't Be No Fool; 6) In The Middle Of The Night; 7) Chicken Shack Boogie; 8) Bad Bad Whiskey; 9) One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer; 10) It's A Long, Long Time; 11) I'm Gonna Tell My Mama; 12) Bewildered; 13) Darling How Long; 14) Hold Me Baby; 15) Baby You Thrill Me; 16) I Wanna Go Home; 17) Mama's Boy; 18) I'll Leave You In His Care.
So jump blues could never hold its own against the onslaught of rock'n'roll, with Little Richard and Chuck Berry whisking away its black audiences and then the white rockers sealing its fate completely. Not that Milburn's last years with Aladdin records really passed under the glowing sign of the boogie — he was clearly drifting more and more towards the «blues» side of his personality, but even there he was clearly losing out to electric Chicago stuff.
No big surprise that in 1957 Aladdin finally went down, and brought Amos down with it. Being less lucky than Big Joe Turner, who succeeded in finding a safe 1950s haven on Atlantic (and was probably the only big star of jump blues to make a profitable transition to R'n'B), Milburn hung around several different labels without too many results (I could not easily locate the recordings he made for Ace, King, or others) — resurfacing one last time on Motown records in the early Sixties, with Berry Gordy probably just taking pity on the guy.
For Motown, Milburn settled on simply re-recording the old classics. He cut a bunch of singles and even an entire — his first and only — LP, confusingly entitled Return Of The Blues Boss (even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever knew him under such a nick name, not even in his best days). Nothing sold or charted, and not even Gordy could hold the guy on the label for more than two years, whereupon Milburn went into complete oblivion, had a stroke in 1972, a leg amputated in 1975, and died five years later.
Frankly speaking, though, these Motown recordings are solid evidence that either Amos really was washed up by 1962, or, more likely, that there was not a single person around him that knew the way to make his talents serve the new decade. All of these eighteen tracks sound well enough, but Milburn's greatest strength — the fantastic piano playing — is criminally understated; on half of the tracks, he is not given the proper chance to shine at all, and on the other half, the piano is criminally buried in the mix. This may be in accordance with Motown's general emphasis on ensemble playing, with the vocalist(s) being the only element of the sound that is allowed to stick out, but in this case, why sign the guy at all? He certainly has always had a nice singing voice, but in the world of the early 1960s, with Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, Smokey Robinson, and James Brown ruling the waves, what chance could the faux-titled «blues boss» ever have?
In the end, The Motown Sessions may be of minor interest not so much to fans of the old boogie woogie sound, but rather to... Stevie Wonder completists, since «Little Stevie» is credited for contributing harmonica parts on some of the tracks. All that's left is to issue a warning — do not mistake these re-recordings of 'Chicken Shack Boogie', 'One Bourbon', 'Bad Bad Whiskey' and other classics for the originals. Remember, an Amos Milburn original must have the piano in the role of lead vocalist — and the vocals accompanying it. Not vice versa. Thumbs down.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1941-1946)
1) Black Pony Blues; 2) Death Valley Blues; 3) Kind Lover Blues; 4) If I Get Lucky; 5) Standing At My Window; 6) Gonna Follow My Baby; 7) Give Me A 32-20; 8) My Mama Don't Allow Me; 9) Mean Old 'Frisco Blues; 10) Raised To My Hand; 11) Cool Disposition; 12) Who's Been Foolin' You; 13) Rock Me Mama; 14) Keep Your Arms Around Me; 15) Dirt Road Blues; 16) I'm In The Mood; 17) She's Gone; 18) Ethel Mae; 19) So Glad You're Mine; 20) Boy Friend Blues; 21) No More Lovers; 22) You Got To Reap; 23) Chicago Blues; 24) That's Your Red Wagon.
Arthur «Big Boy» Crudup — the respectable layman will know this name only with the blessing of Elvis, and even then, only if the respectable layman cares to look at the songwriting credits. Who knows, perhaps without Arthur Crudup there would have been no Elvis as such; it is the reworking of 'That's All Right Mama', after all, that truly caught the ear of Sam Philips and jumpstarted the King's career.
The respectable layman also knows that at least one more big Elvis hit, 'My Baby Left Me', is also credited to Crudup. The respectable would, perhaps, want to ask how come they are the exact same song with different sets of lyrics — and be surprised in learning that, throughout his entire recording career, Arthur Crudup only wrote two songs, which, for lack of a better terminology, we shall hereby call The Slow One and The Fast One. From 1941 to 1954, he cut around a hundred sides that, at best, constituted minor variations on these two pillars of his career, and, at worst, only differed as to the lyrics. (Although even the lyrics get recycled. E. g., the song 'That's All Right Mama' is not even present on this first volume, but the immortal lines — 'that's all right, mama, any way you do' — can already be found on two or three other cuts).
The fact that Crudup's records actually found reasonable commercial success in the 1940s will seem all the more mind-boggling once you realize just how simple the formula is. Arthur never was a great singer, whining and wheezing his way through the songs as certainly does not befit a true «Big Boy», and his guitar playing, particularly compared to such blues greats of the day as Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, or Lonnie Johnson, is at best rudimentary. Historically speaking, he was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar — along with the similarly minimalistic John Lee Hooker and the far more technical T-Bone Walker — but his sound was really just amplified acoustic, sometimes hard to tell from true unplugged; certainly this could not be a determining factor.
We would hit closer to home if we suggested that «Big Boy», in the world of popular blues-based entertainment, was one of the earliest propagators of the Keep It Simple Stupid approach; his direct heir was Jimmy Reed, and from then on — innumerable swarms of rockabilly pioneers, who were all too happy to blow on the coals of rock and roll excitement that lie at the heart of Crudup's Fast One, and sometimes on the coals of straightahead macho minimalism that make up the bulk of Crudup's Slow One.
Back in 1941, listeners were happy to have this non-sophistication — yearning for a simple, accessible groove with a little bit of raw animalism (too much raw animalism, as displayed by Mississippi gurus like Charley Patton and Son House, would be way too scary for the respectable layman). Today, we may want to listen to this for altogether different reasons, combining historic curiosity with strange spiritual/intellectual urges — such as the urge to judge Arthur's grooves as turning non-sophistication into art, intentionally sacrificing complexity and progress in favor of something utterly free and natural, even though he himself certainly never saw it that way: he just kind of sort of liked to play guitar, to the best of his ability, and must have been deeply and profoundly shocked to find these records selling.
On a minor side note, he does sound a little bit like Robert Johnson from time to time — similar «whining» style, similar simplistic guitar accompaniment (although, in Johnson's case, it was deceptively simplistic) — and it may be so that people bought his records through some odd association. Perhaps, somehow, he symbolized that creepy Delta magnetism better than anybody else in some listeners' eyes and ears. Perhaps not.
Discussing the actual titles would be completely useless. 'Rock Me Mama' is the best known one ('rock me mama — one time — before I go' is, after all, a classic line), and 'So Glad You're Mine' is another Slow One that Elvis put his mark on a decade later. Only about five or six of these 24 numbers are Fast Ones; in the early 1940s, that kind of «blues-boogie» was still a novelty compared to the more traditional slow 12-bar form, so if you are more interested in Crudup as the pioneer of rock and roll, skip to the next volume.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 2 (1946-1949)
1) Crudup's After Hours; 2) I Want My Lovin'; 3) That's All Right; 4) I Don't Know It; 5) Cry Your Blues Away; 6) Crudup's Vicksburg Blues; 7) Gonna Be Some Changes Made; 8) Train Fare Blues; 9) Katie Mae; 10) Hey Mama, Everything's All Right; 11) Hoodoo Lady Blues; 12) Lonesome World To Me; 13) Roberta Blues; 14) Just Like A Spider; 15) Some Day; 16) That's Why I'm Lonesome; 17) Tired Of Worry; 18) Dust My Broom; 19) Hand Me Down My Walking Cane; 20) Shout Sister Shout; 21) Come Back Baby; 22) You Know That I Love You.
If there is one change from «Big Boy»'s early 1940s to late 1940s style, it is a drastic shift of the proportional rate of the Slow One to the Fast One. Crudup's soul may have been more in the Slow One, but the real money was coming in on the Fast One; thus, out of the 22 songs on this album, 10 are the Fast One and 12 are the Slow One, whereas on the first volume the Fast One first appeared in the guise of 'Mean Old Frisco Blues' and only gained its positions very gradually.
This is the period during which 'That's All Right (Mama)' was recorded — but in the context of the album, it is not even the most energetic incarnation of the Fast One; personally, I would rather vote for 'I Want My Lovin', the exact same tune, but with some very nifty jazz drumming driving Arthur to play and sing it with a tad more wildness. Of course, these are truly microscopical differences we are speaking about, but what else is there to speak about when you deal with an artist who is not above re-recording the same 12-bar blues as 'Ethel Mae' the first time and then 'Katie Mae' the second time around?
Pretty much the only Fast One here that is not 'That's All Right' is 'Shout Sister Shout', a fun piece of Big Joe Turner-ish jump blues; and pretty much the only Slow Ones of particular notice are his interpretations of 'Dust My Broom' and 'Hand Me Down My Walking Cane', since it is most likely his simplistic style of trilling that served as the inspiration for Elmore James. (Do not quote me on that, though). The rest is the rest: 'Gonna Be Some Changes Made' is as deceiving a song title as I have ever come across.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 3 (1949-1952)
1) Mercy Blues; 2) She's Just Like Caldonia; 3) Mean Old Santa Fe; 4) Behind Closed Doors; 5) She Ain't Nothin' But Trouble; 6) Oo-Wee Darling; 7) Anytime Is The Right Time; 8) My Baby Left Me; 9) Nobody Wants Me; 10) Star Bootlegger; 11) Too Much Competition; 12) Second Man Blues; 13) Pearly Lee; 14) Love Me Mama; 15) Never No More; 16) Where Did You Stay Last Night?; 17) I'm Gonna Dig Myself A Hole; 18) I'm Gonna Dig Myself A Hole (alt. take); 19) Goin' Back To Georgia; 20) Mr. So And So; 21) Do It If You Want To; 22) Keep On Drinkin'.
As the 1950s drew near, Big Boy finally decided to vary the formula — if only a little bit. He got himself a new guitar sound, explicitly more electrified and thick than before, learned a few extra chords (or so it would seem), and even dared to tread on the previously untrodden turf of a few giants. 'Anytime Is The Right Time', for instance, is a soft and sweet blues ballad in the vein of Lonnie Johnson; and for 'Nobody Wants Me', he assumes a plaintive lyrical tone that evokes the blues queens of the 1920s.
This is pretty much it, though. Except for those two songs and tiny signs of evolution as a player (and the generally much improved sound quality, but, what with the passing of time, this is to be expected), everything else is still The Slow One and The Fast One; and The Fast One is, once again, giving up its positions (the ratio on this volume is 13 : 8 in favor of The Slow One, not counting one alternate take), while The Slow One, if that is even possible, becomes even more generic than before — out of the 13, at least seven or eight start out with the exact same ringing chords. Alas, no «Guess That Melody» game for Arthur Crudup, I'm afraid.
Of course, this is also the volume that has 'My Baby Left Me' on it, and it has pretty much the same atmospheric spirit — a little dark, a little depressed, yet all very playful — that Elvis managed to preserve with his cover. Which should not detract from realizing that it is the exact same song as 'That's All Right (Mama)', or even that pretty much all of its lyrics had already appeared on previous recordings of The Fast One, usually in sizable chunks.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 4 (1952-1954)
1) Worried About You Baby; 2) Late In The Evening; 3) Lookin' For My Baby; 4) Nelvina; 5) My Baby Boogies All The Time; 6) I Wonder; 7) Baby I've Been Mistreated; 8) You Didn't Mean A Word; 9) Open Your Book; 10) Tears In My Eyes; 11) Tears In My Eyes (alternate take); 12) Gonna Find My Baby; 13) Make A Little Love; 14) I Love My Baby; 15) My Wife And Women; 16) The War Is Over; 17) Fall On Your Knees And Pray; 18) If You Ever Been To Georgia; 19) Help Me To Bear This Heavy Load; 20) I Love You; 21) She's Got No Hair; 22) Looka There, She's Got No Hair; 23) I Love Her Just The Same.
The last Crudup volume in the Document series covers two and a half more years in his career before he went into semi-retirement, supposedly out of disgust with the record labels cheating him out of hard-earned cash (frankly speaking, it is possible to understand the record labels — how many times over and over again can you pay an artist for recording the exact same song?). The catalyst might have actually been Elvis' recording of 'That's Alright (Mama)', for which Big Boy never got any royalties — but then he didn't really write it, either.
Anyway, this is probably the most «full-sounding» Crudup album out there, as he essays to diversify his act by trying on different melodies and instrumentation. The sessions that cover the stretch from 'My Baby Boogies All The Time' to 'Make A Little Love' add an aggressive harmonica player, and the whole shenanigan occasionally resembles a weaker version of Son House's voodoo ritual. Then, starting with 'I Love My Baby', the harmonica is either replaced or supported by sax, and some of the tracks start sounding as if they want to capture the light groove of Atlantic R'n'B — including perhaps the oddest song in the Crudup catalog, the comic romp of 'Looka There, She's Got No Hair' (present here in two versions, one light, with brass and harmonica and whiny clownish singing, one dark, with grittier electric guitar, no brass, and a much more growly performance).
None of this helped make Arthur a big star once again — in the blues world, people were hungry for edgier atmosphere (Muddy) or blistering guitar playing (Elmore), and in the world of flashy entertainment, early rock'n'roll was replacing jump blues, and «Big Boy», unfortunately, was not nearly as big as to be able to recast himself in any of these moulds. Little innocent tricks, like putting out a song called 'The War Is Over' as a present to Korean veterans, did not help either. So it is no big surprise that the Document series stops at 1954 — there was no place for Arthur Crudup in the musical world of 1955. And, despite all the attempts at change, this is probably the least essential chapter in the man's history.
MEAN OL' FRISCO (1962)
1) Mean Ol' Frisco; 2) I'm In The Mood; 3) That's All Right; 4) Standin' At My Window; 5) Angel Child; 6) Katie Mae; 7) Look On Yonder Wall; 8) Dig Myself A Hole; 9) If I Get Lucky; 10) Death Valley Blues; 11) I Love Her Just The Same; 12) Angel Child; 13) Rock Me Mama; 14) Ethel Mae; 15) My Mama Don't Allow Me.
Fire Records was a small independent black-owned label, set up in 1959 with the purpose of holding up black artists — either old, struggling ones, or new, inexperienced ones — against the seas of troubles. Among the old, struggling ones, they happened to pick up Arthur, and Arthur responded to the pickup by faithfully re-recording a bunch of avatars of the Slow One and a bunch of avatars of the Fast One.
The only reason to listen to Mean Ol' Frisco is, for those who really like «Big Boy» for his art rather than historic importance, the fact that he sounds pretty much the same as usual, but the production values are, naturally, much higher and the cracks and hisses are eliminated, so that one can assess and enjoy his blatantly poor guitar playing with no obstacles in sight. To be fair, it is a little different; in fact, he seems to have picked up a few more chords during the first decade of retirement — but certainly not enough to catch up on his superiors, nor even enough to make the Slow One and the Fast One significantly different from what they used to be.
LOOK ON YONDER'S WALL (1969)
1) Look On Yonder's Wall; 2) Questionnaire Blues; 3) Keep Your Hands Off That Woman; 4) That's All Right; 5) Rock Me Mama; 6) Katie Mae; 7) Dust My Broom; 8) Landlord Blues; 9) Coal Black Mare; 10) Life Is Just A Gamble; 11) Walk Out On My Road; 12) I'm All Alone; 13) You'll Be Old Before Your Time; 14) Ramblin' Blues; 15) When I Lost My Baby.
Finally, for those who would want to check out the utterly modernized, up-to-date Big Boy, there is this disc, assembled from Arthur's late Sixties — I'm guessing around 1967-69 — sessions for Delmark Records. Willie Dixon, who did accompany Arthur on at least some of his late Sixties sessions, is apparently not present — two different bass players, one of which I do not know, and the other one of which is Ransom Knowling, Arthur's original bass player for 'That's All Right', are listed among the credits — and there is also regularly a second guitarist, assuming all the «melodic» duties as Big Boy simply slices up the growling rhythm chords. This is a nice change, but the second guitarist is no Elmore James or Albert King, so it does not affect the situation much.
The only bit of variety is that some of the songs are accompanied by a little studio banter, letting you know that Big Boy's singing style did not vary all that much from his talking one. Otherwise, it just makes up for the finest sounding, but least intriguing version of the Crudup Groove for those who do not like the vibe of the late 1940s hollow-body electric (or, more properly, «electrified») guitar. Nothing else. Soon afterwards, he would once again stop recording, and soon after that, he would die, as that was pretty much the last productive option to choose. But he lived a good life, and left behind two good records — The Slow One and The Fast One. That is, after all, two good records more than most artists in this world have ever produced.
SINGIN' THE BLUES (1956)
1) Please Love Me; 2) You Upset Me Baby; 3) Everyday (I Have The Blues); 4) Bad Luck; 5) Three O'Clock Blues; 6) Blind Love; 7) Woke Up This Morning; 8) You Know I Love You; 9) Sweet Little Angel; 10) Ten Long Years; 11) Did You Ever Love A Woman; 12) Crying Won't Help You.
B. B. King's singles on RPM records started flowing as early as 1949, but most of his career was LP-oriented, and so it makes sense to choose, as our point of departure, this 1956 collection that puts together the majority of his best singles from 1951 to 1955 (a more comprehensive overview of the early years can probably be found on some later anthologies, but, as far as I am able to tell, there is no single collection that puts together all of his early material).
Many of these songs were huge hits on the blues and R&B charts — but, for some reason, missed attracting white audiences, far more enthralled with the likes of Muddy Waters and Elmore James at the time. Look up the biographies of blues/R&B-enthralled British Invaders, for instance, and you will rarely see B. B. mentioned as an influence, except, perhaps, by just a few oddjobs like Eric Clapton, and only in retrospect. Reason? Too clean.
Already from the get-go, B. B. positioned himself as the king of «Blues-de-Luxe»: respectable playing for respectable gentlemen. Take a look at the album cover: with his big fat Gibson, pin-striped suit and tie, he looks like the black equivalent of Bill Haley. The same applies to music: smooth, mid-tempo, backed by professional jazz musicians with big brassy arrangements. And, to make matters worse, the guy puts as much emphasis on his singing as he does on his playing — the most tasteless thing in blues, ever! But then, what do you really want from a guy one of whose primary idols in life has been Frank Sinatra?
All of this easily explains why B. B. did not become a household name among white audiences until the late Sixties and particularly the early Seventies. It also explains why these early singles are not really the «milestones» they are sometimes pronounced to be. For blues lovers, 'Every Day I Have The Blues' is one of the cornerstones of the genre, but definitely not because of this original version of King's, a whopping 2:49 in length and only featuring a brief, minimalistic solo — he had to popularize it, and a dozen other big hits, in a live context to achieve this result, and he had to wait at least ten more years for it.
Singin' The Blues is no more of a milestone in the evolution of electric blues than contemporary records by the other King (Albert) — or, for that matter, earlier records by T-Bone Walker. Most of the time, B. B. plays relatively standard, predictable licks that do not differ all that much from the regular techniques of the epoch; more importantly, the compact form of the 45"-tailored ditty does not allow him the slightest opportunity to stretch out, improvise, or develop a theme.
If there is one reason to listen to these singles at all, it is the singing. Unquestionably, at this point B. B. King was the most vocally-endowed blues performer in the business (and would remain so until the emergence of a strong competitor in Freddie King), and his manner of phrasing and vocalizing owes much more to urban semi-crooners like Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson, not to mention white lounge performers (to whom the man must have lent quite a serious ear), than to hoarse growlers from the Delta. This makes it hard to associate his music with the devil, who, as I have heard, is gravely allergic to falsetto, and prefers to make serious deals with the likes of John Lee Hooker. But, when dealing with B. B. King, it is wise to remember that blues had been alternately serving as a genre of lounge entertainment since the day it was born, and to try and approach him from the same way one would approach Sinatra or Neil Diamond: prima facie a respectable entertainer who will try to stir up — gracefully and cautiously to some, blandly and boringly to others — the human parts of your soul, not the animal parts.
In fact, I think I «got» this record — and B. B.'s studio style in general — when I thought of it as sort of a Clyde McPhatter album with the doo-wop harmonies and strings replaced by searing electric guitar. Many people, I think, share this dream with me: to hear Clyde McPhatter with an atmosphere of grit inside of sap. Well, you need not look further than the original versions of 'Three O'Clock Blues' or 'Did You Ever Love A Woman' to get what you want. Thumbs up; this may be «seminal» material indeed — but not for the reasons it is usually proclaimed as such.
THE BLUES (1958)
1) Why Does Everything Happen To Me; 2) Ruby Lee; 3) When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer; 4) Past Day; 5) Boogie Woogie Woman; 6) Early Every Morning; 7) I Want To Get Married; 8) That Ain't The Way To Do It; 9) Troubles, Troubles, Troubles; 10) Don't You Want A Man Like Me; 11) You Know I Go For You; 12) What Can I Do?.
Singin' The Blues is at least historically important in that it collects B. B.'s hit singles from an entire half-decade; by the time it became necessary to issue a follow-up, with LPs slowly, but steadily taking on as a medium at least as important as the 45", the golden vaults were exhausted, and so, this and the following several LPs are extremely uneven on the commercial scale.
On the other hand, The Blues is where King truly begins to demonstrate traces of stylistic versatility and show how easily he can adapt himself to different times. If the debut LP was mostly limited to «hardcore blues» and «blues ballads», here we have ourselves some bossa nova ('Ruby Lee', 'Don't You Want A Man Like Me'), some stompin' boogie ('Boogie Woogie Woman', 'That Ain't The Way To Do It'), and even a timid attempt at a rawer rockabilly sound ('Early Every Morning').
It is quite transparent that B. B. is trying to toughen up his image: there are practically no attempts at crooning, and most of the «soul» attitude is sacrificed in order to make space for more rock'n'roll. However, just like before, the songs are simply way too short, and have been cut way too quickly, for any of this material to acquire some individuality, and, from the first track to the last, it merely plays as acceptable background music with stylish (for their time) guitar licks.
The only «classic» hit here was 'When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer', which, in its studio version, is simply one more indistinguishable example of blues-de-luxe (slow tempo, brass section, soulful vocals, recognizable soloing, B. B. had like a million of these songs out back in those days); seek out various live versions to explore its true potential. The «sleeper» is 'Early Every Morning', which does have one of the best examples of King's fast playing on record (much more fluent and complex than Chuck Berry's, but also, predictably, less ass-kicking).
B. B. KING WAILS (1959)
1) Sweet Thing; 2) I've Got Papers On You, Baby; 3) Tomorrow Is Another Day; 4) Come By Here; 5) The Fool; 6) I Love You So; 7) The Woman I Love; 8) We Can't Make It; 9) Treat Me Right; 10) Time To Say Goodbye.
He wails all right, but he does not play all that much. Credited to «B. B. King And His Orchestra», the record is an even more clearly pronounced effort to promote B. B. as a lounge entertainer, downplaying his guitar skills and concentrating on the power of his voice. There are, in fact, several tracks on here where he doesn't produce a single lick — such as the ridiculous 'Come By Here', a «family arrangement» of 'Kumbaya' with new (and even sillier) lyrics, or the generic doo-wop of 'I Love You So'.
This cannot work, and it does not work. No one should doubt the powers of B. B. King as a blues singer — always was one of the absolute best out there — but his voice only works to its fullest when he gives it the proper competition from the guitar. Competing with crooners like Clyde McPhatter, or even comparably bulky R'n'B-ers like Big Joe Turner, is, however, an entirely useless thing, and whoever took the decision of drowning King's guitar in orchestral arrangements must have had only recently switched to working in the music industry from an earplug factory.
About half of this surprisingly short album (ten tracks only) is still vintage B. B., with some fiery playing on tracks like 'The Woman I Love' and 'Treat Me Right', but, on the other hand, these are tracks that add little, if anything, to the stylistics already displayed on the previous two albums. 'The Fool' and 'Time To Say Goodbye' were the singles, but neither is a classic; 'The Fool' is also one of those guitarless tracks that should have been left to crooners.
The recent CD reissue of the album is arguably a better proposition than the original, due to the inclusion of a few bonus tracks that have B. B. playing not with his own orchestra, but with Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey instead; the Count Basie version of 'Everyday I Have The Blues', in particular, is probably a must-hear for fans of both artists. Which does not save the record itself from a disappointed thumbs down, regardless.
B. B. KING SINGS SPIRITUALS (1959)
1) Precious Lord; 2) Save A Seat For Me; 3) Ole Time Religion; 4) Swing Low Sweet Chariot; 5) Servant's Prayer; 6) Jesus Gave Me Water; 7) I Never Heard A Man; 8) Army Of The Lord; 9) I Am Willing To Run All The Way; 10) I'm Working On The Building.
Far be it from us to say that B. B. King is a poor singer — he has a nice, endearing, sometimes almost silky tone that never grates or annoys.
Further be it from us to say that B. B. King is not a spiritually sensible man — regardless of how much money he has made and how much of it he has not given away to the poor, there is little reason to doubt his sincere faith in the Lord (who has, among other things, provided him with all that money).
Still further be it from us to say that B. B. King has no right, or reason, or business recording an entire album of gospel tunes if he feels like it — especially considering that, every once in a while, everyone deserves at least a brief change from the 12-bar mold, and going into gospel is nowhere near as cringeworthy as, say, going into crooning.
And be it as furthest of the furthest from us as possible to say that B. B. King Sings Spirituals is a proverbially bad album. If you have not suffered priest abuse, be it Catholic or Protestant; if you have no 19th century-style racial prejudices; and if you can stand a little musical take on «ol' time religion» propelled by good singing and good organ playing, the record cannot be put down on its own merits.
None of which, however, prevents me from stating the obvious: I cannot think of a reason why anyone would want to hear, much less own, a B. B. King album with no guitar on it whatsoever. B. B. King is a guitar player, period. If he does not want to play his guitar, let him not play his guitar in front of his parents, his children, his close friends, or his mirror. In this life, B. B. King has one and only one social purpose (that matters, anyway), and that is playing his guitar. I can understand that he did not want to be pigeonholed. I can do nothing about it — I want to pigeonhole him, and I will pigeonhole him. Call me Dubyah if you will — but this is a thumbs down.
THE GREAT B. B. KING (1960)
1) Sweet Sixteen; 2) (I'm Gonna) Quit You Baby; 3) I Was Blind; 4) What Can I Do; 5) Someday Baby; 6) Sneakin' Around; 7) I Had A Woman; 8) Be Careful With A Fool; 9) Whole Lot Of Lovin'; 10) Days Of Old.
Back to the blues at least, even if, like most other albums from that period, this is another mish-mash of all kinds of different tracks from all kinds of different years. The selection had been made around exactly one new hit: B. B.'s rendition of 'Sweet Sixteen', originally made popular by Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records.
Back in 1960, B. B. was no Big Joe when it came to solid body mass (he would catch up pretty soon, though), but, after singing all these spirituals, he was in greater vocal shape than ever, and for this little bit of soap drama, he gives Big Joe quite a run for his money. The only solo on this blues rant takes place at the beginning, and the whole piece runs for over six minutes, covering both sides of the single — but the emphasis is really on the interplay between B. B.'s vocals and the weep and wail of the guitar. Arguably, 'Sweet Sixteen' is the first truly classic B. B. studio recording — live, like most other tunes, it would simply become a foundation for passionate instrumental blueswailing, but the studio original has its own modest charm.
The rest of the tracks are mostly blues, although diluted by occasional shades of doo-wop-tinged gospel ('I Was Blind'), doo-wop-tinged lounge entertainment ('Sneakin' Around'), and boogie-woogie ('Days Of Old'). The blues, too, is diversified: on 'Whole Lot Of Lovin', for instance, B. B. tries out some Elmore James (i. e. goes for the 'Dust My Broom' riff), and slow and mid-tempos alternate frequently enough to make one at least notice the in-between song breaks. Plus, as intuitive as it may sound, he seems to go for sharper, crisper tones, rougher cut-offs and shriller notes, toughening it up for a more demanding audience, perhaps? (Not that I have any idea of the absolute chronology of any of those recordings).
If Singin' The Blues was important for being his first, then The Great B. B. King is important for bringing the man back from the mischievous temptation of becoming a crooner or a gospel performer, kicking back into the blues idiom with a vengeance. Thumbs up.
MY KIND OF BLUES (1960)
1) You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now; 2) Mr. Pawn Broker; 3) Understand; 4) Someday Baby; 5) Driving Wheel; 6) Walking Dr. Bill; 7) My Own Fault, Darling; 8) Cat Fish Blues; 9) Hold That Train; 10) Please Set A Date.
Somewhat of a turning point on B. B.'s personal highway; according to his own memory (which has little choice but to be trusted, given an utter lack of independent sources), this was his first album recorded as a proper album — over one single recording session with one single small backing band — and in full accordance with his own vision of the blues. My Kind Of Blues indeed: the title is far more meaningful in this instance than all the Great B. B. Kings in the world.
It is not hard to believe the story. If you want to hear a fresh, young, not-yet-overweight B. B. King sing and play stark blues — no lounge entertainment, no spirituals, no experimentation with teenage music styles etc. — My Kind Of Blues is the obvious choice. There is no single particular standout; technically, the «heavy» bit is the opening number, 'You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now', which takes five minutes of intense build-up to deliver its point, but it is hardly any more jaw-dropping than the rest of the record.
Which is hardly jaw-dropping at all, to tell the truth, but merely one of those basic delights which make the enlightened blues fan happy. All 12-bar, all formula-worshipping, but with B. B. acting in the role of B. B. to fill in the function variable, My Kind Of Blues is unassailable as long as we agree that B. B.'s guitar playing style itself is unassailable. Because, finally, he is given plenty of room to express himself, unconfined to the limitations of the 2:30 single and unhampered by any fat brass section.
Come to think of it, the first thirty seconds of 'You Done Lost...' may almost be announcing the start of a new era for the electric guitar — that of the loud, pompous, soulful blues guitar introduction, abused by millions since then but, arguably, never truly surpassed. And although none of the solos that King plays on this album are as flashy as the ones he would soon be throwing around on stage, most of them deserve to be listened to with special attention. Sometimes he starts playing against the melody. Sometimes he toys around with the volume, puncturing the value of short bits of silence within long bits of loudness. All of the time he is being flawless — not a single mistake, not a single clumsy transition, and all this within lengthy series of relatively complex licks that explore all the possibilities offered to them by the limited time frame.
All of this has been replicated and surpassed many times since 1960, so that today My Kind Of Blues can be revered only for its historical importance. But enjoyed it can be purely for itself. Unquestionably a thumbs up.
KING OF THE BLUES (1960)
1) I've Got A Right To Love My Baby; 2) What Way To Go; 3) Long Nights; 4) Feel Like A Million; 5) I'll Survive; 6) Good Man Gone Bad; 7) If I Lost You; 8) You're On The Top; 9) Partin' Time; 10) I'm King.
It is almost impossible to determine whether King Of The Blues was released before or after My Kind Of Blues, but, in the long run, it does not make much difference: all through the decade, «real» albums like the latter continued to be released side by side with pseudo-albums that continued to combine new tracks, old tracks, hardcore blues, and usually lame excursions into other genres. At least King Of The Blues mostly sticks to hardcore; but the big brass sound is back, and the level of inspiration falls down once again.
Like The Great B. B. King, this is a single-supporting LP, except the hit single is nowhere near as epochal as 'Sweet Sixteen': it is 'Got A Right To Love My Baby', announced by thick pompous fanfares and placing B. B. in some remote corner so that his voice echoes all over the studio — a regular gimmick on this record, supposed to add explicit stateliness — perhaps, even Godliness — to a personality that'd be much better off radiating them implicitly. Truthfully, the song is no better and no worse than the other nine cuts of this blues-de-luxe, most of which are structured around a big brass riff, although B. B. faithfully soloes on every track.
One could speculate that the whole idea was to press down the «king, king, king» image on the audiences, given the diminishing popularity of blues artists, and that the album title, the ever-increasing pompousness of the delivery, and the inclusion of a track specifically called 'I'm King' all intended to reinstate the people's belief in B. B. But with the emergence of another King — Freddie — that same year, with the big smash of 'Have You Ever Loved A Woman', far more searing, brutal, and immediate than all of King Of The Blues put together, the idea was doomed. «Mainstreamers» went for totally safe white crooners, and «alternativers» rather went for Freddie, Muddy, and Elmore. Efforts like these could only plop through the cracks.
Of course, in retrospect, all of this is nice and perfectly listenable as tasteful background music (muzak). But in its context, King Of The Blues kinda sucks — like most albums that contain the word 'King' and actually intend to mean it. To paraphrase a semi-fictional Roman, "Listen, king of the blues — where is your kingdom?.."
BLUES FOR ME (1961)
1) Bad Case Of Love; 2) Get Out Of Here; 3) Bad Luck Soul; 4) Shut Your Mouth; 5) Baby, Look At You; 6) You're Breaking My Heart; 7) My Reward; 8) Don't Cry Anymore; 9) Blues For Me; 10) Just Like A Woman.
B. B. King goes... twisting, at least on the opening number, 'Bad Case Of Love'; for any similar artist with a similar gesture today, we'd call this yet another exercise in self-prostituting, but for B. B. King, this was, no doubt, just another brave attempt to break down the walls between genres. He twists pretty damn good, too; I guess his moves are a little rustier than Chubby Checker's, but he can sure play the guitar a whole lot better.
But seriously, Blues For Me is just another by-the-book record that only distinguishes itself in two ways from its predecessor. The bad way is that it brings back the syrupy orchestrated ballads ('My Reward'). The good way is that there are quite a few fast numbers, and 'Bad Case Of Love' — the lead single — is actually the least surprising of them, because B. B. also tries out grittier, Chuck Berry-style rock'n'roll, replete with true Berry-style licks and rollicking Johnny Johnson-style piano ('Just Like A Woman'), and even — dare I say it? — Ventures-style surf-rock (the totally mismatchingly named title track).
As for pure guitar power, the real highlight is probably 'You're Breaking My Heart', if only because it is graciously given a weighty four minutes to properly unwind. Not that it makes a lot of difference or anything. Overall, just another enjoyable, but completely predictable page in the man's conservative almanac.
BLUES IN MY HEART (1962)
1) You're Gonna Miss Me; 2) Got 'Em Bad; 3) Troubles Don't Last; 4) Your Letter; 5) I Can't Explain; 6) The Wrong Road; 7) I Need You Baby; 8) So Many Roads; 9) Down Hearted; 10) Strange Things.
How do you tell a corporate profanation of the art of B. B. King from a shackle-free celebration of the art of B. B. King? Simple. If all the ballads, rumbas, and twists make you miss the blues, you're in for the whoring. If, on the contrary, all the blues makes you miss the rumbas and twists, you know you're in for the real stuff.
At this particular session, there really was quite a big deal of blues in B. B.'s heart. In fact, there is so much blues in his heart, it ends up sharing the fate of too much fat in the broth of the proverbial greedy innkeeper who was promised to be paid by the spot. Meaning, of course, that all of the songs sound so much the same, it takes a significant attention span to notice the breaks.
It must have been a fun session, but with the exact same mid-tempo 12-bar structure all over the place, there is hardly an album that can make a worse case against the limitations of the blues. 'Down Hearted', a.k.a. 'How Blue Can You Get', is taken at a wee bit slower tempo and sounds a little bit more personal ('I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give 'em back' is as classic as a blues line can get), which is probably why it got a single release, but, as far as I know, it was not a big hit anyway. The rest are all interchangeable.
On the positive side, if you survive one intent listen to this, King's ensuing output will look like the epitome of diversity in comparison — and so, by the way, will almost every other electric blues album released ever since. This is, like, the utmost in hardcore 12-bar; and I used to think Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac could be boring. You live, you learn.
EASY LISTENING BLUES (1962)
1) Easy Listening Blues; 2) Blues For Me; 3) Night Long; 4) Confessin'; 5) Don't Touch; 6) Slow Walk; 7) Walking; 8) Hully Gully; 9) Shoutin' The Blues; 10) Rambler.
Very easy listening blues. So easy, in fact, that you do not even have to stress out your aural nerves responsible for picking up and transmitting the human voice — there is none. After a whole album of non-playing B. B. King (Spirituals), Crown Records have invented yet another way to market the hypermarketable: a whole album of non-singing B. B. King.
It does, however, serve one important purpose: make one understand how integral King's vocals are to his sound. When we pay for the man, we pay for the pair; anything less than that and you are ripped off mercilessly. The playing on these ten tracks is no better and no worse than elsewhere — perhaps even a wee bit better than last time around, since, once again, you get diversity: regular mid-tempo 12-bar stuff interspersed with a little boogie, a little rumba, and a little twist. But without the vocals, none of the songs have any actual sense.
Of course, Easy Listening is supposed to mean «stuff you put on while doing housework, so that all the bypassers learn you have real good taste». But here is the shameful secret: I thought pretty much all of B. B. King's albums from the Crown era (and quite a few from later periods) are «easy listening», and I never expected the stakes were only waiting to be lowered. Am I wrong? Are we supposed to listen to the previous ten albums as if they had lots of deep, penetrating stuff to tell us? I do not really buy it. B. B. King's primary function is entertainment, and this album is low-quality entertainment because it deprives us of a deserved half of it. Thumbs down.
B. B. KING (1963)
1) Going Home; 2) The Letter; 3) You Never Know; 4) Please Remember Me; 5) Come Back Baby; 6) You Won't Listen; 7) Sundown; 8) You Shouldn't Have Left; 9) House Rocker/Boogie Rock; 10) Shake Yours.
Sometime in late 1962 or early 1963, B. B. King switched record labels, relocating from RPM to ABC; in the long run, this turned out to be a crucial move for his career, but at the moment it just seemed like exchanging three decent letters of the alphabet for three other ones (although symbolically placed at the top of the alphabet). Consequently, some sources claim that B. B. King, another in a series of album titles so absolutely stunning in their inexhaustible creativity, was released on the RPM label already after the man's departure, consisting of a mish-mash of tracks recorded at various sessions spanning from 1957 to 1963.
On the surface, this does not make that much difference considering that most B. B. King albums for RPM were just like that. But with these ten songs, the mix-up is arguably felt sharper than ever, because the sound quality wobbles quite drastically from track to track, indicating that the studio was really scraping out the bottom of the bottom. Surprisingly, if we disregard the lack of technical coherence, B. B. King has a pretty good pacing and diversity to it: fast blues, slow blues, and ballads alternate quite intelligently, and King's playing is no less incendiary than we already know it, so, despite the understandable lack of hits, the album gives you a pretty good overview of B. B.'s strong sides, and cleverly hides most of the weak ones.
The highlight is 'Going Home', an early example of tight, biting blues-rock, in fact, one of the first signs that B. B. King might be capable of adapting to the rougher, brutal times lying straight ahead (although the brass backing still manages to Vegasify the proceedings). As the album opener, it gives an impression of looking into the future, which then slowly mutates into the impression of not forgetting the past: at the end of the album, 'Shake Yours' is a completely traditional jump blues number, a little bit of shy guitar drowned in a sea of shouting and ear-bursting trombone and trumpet explosions in Wynonie Harris style.
Of course, one should not overestimate the diversity of an album where four slow blues tracks (three of them — in a row) start off with the exact same chord sequence, but, still, in the context of King's overall output for RPM/Crown, B. B. King is as good a way to say good-bye as it was possible. And, just to keep up the good old tradition, note that later on it was occasionally re-released under the much more memorable title The Soul Of B. B. King.
MR. BLUES (1963)
1) Young Dreamers; 2) By Myself; 3) Chains Of Love; 4) A Mother's Love; 5) Blues At Midnight; 6) Sneakin' Around; 7) On My Road Of Honor; 8) Tomorrow Night; 9) My Baby's Comin' Home; 10) Guess Who; 11) You Ask Me; 12) I'm Gonna Sit In 'Til You Give In.
Six of one, half dozen of another; what is the deep sense of changing labels if you keep doing the same old shit? On most of his first album for ABC Records, «Mr. Blues» does not even pick up the guitar; instead, once again they try to market him as a soulful crooner, meaning that the fans will be forced to sit through the orchestrated garbage of 'Young Dreamers' and 'A Mother's Love' in order to get to the scraps of 'Blues At Midnight', the only real blues number on the record with a strong guitar solo (and, ironically, also King's best vocal performance).
If there is some sort of saving grace, it is a feeling of diversity which, for the most part, had been lacking on the Crown albums. One hardcore blues number, three or four rotten ballads, a couple slow-paced R'n'B shouters, some boogie — for B. B.'s usual range this is quite a kaleidoscope. And when he is not pulling an (already sold out) Lonnie Johnson on 'Tomorrow Night', trying to outsweeten the sweetness of the strings, he is pulling a much more effective Big Joe Turner on 'Chains Of Love' (a conscious attempt at repeating the success of the near-identical 'Sweet Sixteen'), or rocking his socks off on 'My Baby's Comin' Home', where the Maxwell Davis Orchestra blends in with his guitar playing to near-perfection.
These are the good points — but it is evident that they do not outweigh the bad ones, at the very least, there is nothing whatsoever on Mr. Blues to suggest that King's future career would be so radically different from his first decade of hits and misses. At the very least, Mr. Blues shows quite clearly that his creative growth would owe much more to changing expectations and shifting public tastes than to any particularities in his record contract. In short, God bless the Sixties (which, to make this point clear, had not yet begun in 1963).
LIVE AT THE REGAL (1965)
1) Every Day I Have The Blues; 2) Sweet Little Angel; 3) It's My Own Fault; 4) How Blue Can You Get?; 5) Please Love Me; 6) You Upset Me Baby; 7) Worry, Worry; 8) Woke Up This Morning; 9) You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now; 10) Help The Poor.
Eventually, someone got it right: even if the live album format was not nearly as obligatory a companion for a performing artist in 1965 as it would be in just a few years, few people deserved a switch to that format any more than the B. B. of the Kings. Unfortunately, Live At The Regal's huge reputation has been causing an almost equally huge backlash in recent years — what with most people falling for the «wanna know what B. B. King sounds like? Try out Live At The Regal» trap, or, even worse, the «wanna know what the blues is all about? How about getting Live At The Regal?» travesty.
But it does not work that way. According to hearsay, King himself never considered the final product to be all that great, which is telling, coming from someone who quite obviously is his own biggest fan. Listening to the Regal performance out of context is entirely useless; for most people, it will merely sound like an adequate blues concert. And reading all the rave-ups about how this is one of the most «fiery», «incendiary», «exciting», «involving» etc. performances of its time — come on now, who do these guys think they're kidding? Jerry Lee Lewis' Live At The Star Club — now that's excitement. Live At The Regal is polite entertainment.
Still, even today, with those early days of electric blues magic long concealed from us by the trash heaps of generic 12-bar hacks, all it takes to give Regal the appreciation it deserves is to listen to the twelve or so studio LPs that B. B. had to put out in order to gain the precious right to include a recording mike on stage. There, he was cornered; on stage, he is unleashed, and as clichéd as this phrase may sound, there is no better context in which to insert it. Playing whatever he wants, however he wants to play it, and for as long as he wants to play it (well, all right, in 1965 he still had himself some time constraints), the man finally gets to show that there is so much more behind the polished surface of his hit singles — enough to convince even fans of the grimmer blues of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker of his worthiness.
Some of the songs are played as several-movements «blues suites», where all it takes is a slight change of key in between bars to move from one type of wail to another; this may actually be better than inserting all the usual breaks, because there is no pretense of playing different songs, and the breaks, where they are present, generally indicate the transition into a general sub-style, of which B. B. has developed many: jump blues ('Every Day I Have The Blues'), boogie blues ('Please Love Me'), rumba blues ('Woke Up This Morning'), and soul blues ('Help The Poor').
Like every self-respecting entertainer, King likes to address the crowds — most often, over a musical background from his backing band — and his ad-libbed bits diversify the atmosphere, serving either as thematic links in between numbers (e. g. the seamless transition from 'Sweet Little Angel' to 'It's My Own Fault') or as justifications of the song's existence (for 'How Blue Can You Get?', he says, "...I would like you to pay attention to the lyrics, not so much to my singing or the band" — right on the money, because the song is lyrically arresting).
The unquestionable centerpiece of the album lies in the six and a half minutes of 'Worry, Worry', for the first time ever giving us an extended blues solo — two minutes of subtle blueswailing that sets the benchmark for so many things to come: this is not just generic improvisation, but an attempt to «play human» with the guitar, alternating bends, wobbles, stops, and starts in completely unpredictable and yet completely melodic ways. (Not to mention one of B. B.'s most impressive falsetto parts on record).
Understandably, Live At The Regal's historical importance — this is, after all, one of the few albums that are directly responsible for the birth of blues-rock as such — has forever overshadowed its hands-down value (much like, I must add, that of James Brown's Live At The Apollo, if it's all about barbecuing sacred cows). But then there is also no better spot to locate, assess, digest, and enjoy a young, rough-spirited, easy-going, eager to please, and, at the same time, not yet corporally or spiritually overweight king of the blues than Live At The Regal; even if it is no independent masterpiece, it is still a unique piece of history and identity. A sacred cow, after all, does not become sacred for nothing. Thumbs up.
BLUES IS KING (1967)
1) Introduction; 2) Waitin' On You; 3) Introduction; 4) Gambler's Blues; 5) Tired Of Your Jive; 6) Night Life; 7) Buzz Me; 8) Don't Answer The Door; 9) Blind Love; 10) I Know What You're Puttin' Down; 11) Baby Get Lost; 12) Gonna Keep On Loving You.
Quite a few fans consider this rough follow-up to Live At The Regal as the superior experience, and they might just as well be right. The only problem is, despite being a fully official album, Blues Is King plays all the way through at solid bootleg quality — the sound is awfully thin and sparse. You do get to hear all of the instruments, but you hardly get to be overwhelmed by anything close to a coherent wall-of-sound.
Still, this is quite definitely a marking-time record; where Live At The Regal finally showed us the proper way to enjoy B. B. King's music, Blues Is King is the first firm proof of his ability to make the transition from one musical era into another without losing any of his relevancy or public appeal. Recorded in late 1966, at a time when white guitar heroes like Beck and Clapton had already started to revolutionize the role of their instrument in the world of pop music, and when the world was one step away from Jimi's stage appearance, Blues Is King shows that B. B. was firmly hip to the times, willing to get louder, shriller, and even a little dirtier to keep up with all the young British whippersnappers.
The singing is as solid as always, but the spotlight is 100% on «Lucille», which even gets its own introduction in the spoken credits section; most of the tracks feature mid-size extended solos that keep getting more and more complex and inventive and intense and «talkative». No single track stands out — curiously, the set list does not include any of his bigger hits — and there are no pompous blues medleys to underscore the «regal» status of the man, but everything is as sweaty/gritty as it could possibly get at the time, and the saxophone/organ backing is no slouch, either (especially awesome are the sax/guitar duets such as during the coda to 'Buzz Me').
Actually, the set list is somewhat more monotonous than on Regal: slow blues and fast blues is all you get to hear, so, coupled with the tinny sound, this may not register at the top range of King's live albums. But for the diehard fan, this may be the one particular B. B. King experience to trump all the others: stark, staunch, uncompromising, loud, and who cares about the sound quality? the dirtier it is, the higher the chance it'll be your own personal love affair with the LP and no-fuckin'-body other's. Thumbs up, in support of this elitist idea.
BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES (1968)
1) Heartbreaker; 2) Losing Faith In You; 3) Dance With Me; 4) That's Wrong Little Mama; 5) Having My Say; 6) I'm Not Wanted Anymore; 7) Worried Dream; 8) Paying The Cost To Be The Boss; 9) Until I Found You; 10) I'm Gonna Do What They Do To Me; 11) Raining In My Heart; 12) Now That You've Lost Me.
At first, this seems decent; at the very least, much better than King's unhappy debut for ABC five years earlier (and, odd as it is, only his third studio album in five years altogether; Confessin' The Blues from 1967 was the second one, but it is almost impossible to find these days, and not very relevant either, since it was one of those lame attempts to get B. B. by on the strength of his voice alone, replacing Lucille with horns and strings).
The problem is, without particularly serious concentration on the numbers, I caught myself realizing that I did not notice that much guitar on this record, either. All the songs feature big band arrangements, led by Johnny Pate, and for each of these numbers that rarely go over three minutes, King gets lots of singing, but only a few bars of soloing. When you do get to hear the notes, they are as crisp as it gets, showcasing his polished and improved sound from the late Sixties, but you will not get the chance too often.
The material, as expected, veers between straightforward 12-bar and explorations in closely connected territory, e. g. Lonnie Johnson-style balladry ('Losing Faith In You') and danceable blues-rock ('That's Wrong Little Mama', guessable as a response to 'That's Alright Mama'). The lead single was 'Paying The Cost To Be The Boss', probably the correct choice since it hits the harshest (without adding much that we did not know about the man, of course). The second single was 'I'm Gonna Do What They Do To Me', probably the correct choice since it hits the second harshest (without adding much that we did not know about 'Paying The Cost To Be The Boss').
In its historical context, however, the album sounds hopelessly dated even by the standards of 1968. The record is made in strict accordance with the same old rules: short songs, big horns, modest solos, a complete lack of exploration. Its only saving grace is the clean, modern-sounding production, but if you listen to blues for clarity of sound rather than force of expression, you'd better stick to the likes of Robert Cray.
1) Lucille; 2) You Move Me So; 3) Country Girl; 4) No Money, No Luck; 5) I Need Your Love; 6) Rainin' All The Time; 7) I'm With You; 8) Stop Putting The Hurt On Me; 9) Watch Yourself.
Somehow, in between all the mediocre releases and excessive concentration on the live spirit and the fact that, in one short year, the man would make the final mighty crossover with 'The Thrill Is Gone', we all missed the simple truth: Lucille, from (late?) 1968, is the first consistently great studio album to bear B. B. King's name on it. And his guitar's, too, for that matter.
It may not become your favourite, or mine, or the average blues lover's, but it is the first album on which the King is truly, straightforwardly, unequivocally doing the King's thing: not just playing the blues, but also loving it, near-physically, without having to experience coitus interruptus every two minutes. It's all blues, no venturing into strange territories, and the tunes take as much time as they need to build up, develop, and crash down.
Which, in the case of the title track, is ten minutes — King's first, and fully successful, attempt at bringing down barriers. Of course, his lengthy public declaration of love for his guitar is pompous, pretentious, and overblown, but with two decades of hit-making, blues-wailing, and belly-growing behind his back, he has every right to this atmosphere. The little monolog he delivers over the course of the song — as clumsy and clichéd as parts of it are, it's all sincere, and when, after yet another «response» from the guitar, he says "I doubt if you can feel it like I do", there is no reason to think he is just being haughty.
"Lucille don't wanna play nothing but the blues", he says, "if I could sing pop tunes like Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr., I don't think I still could do it". Sounds pretty blunt, when you start thinking of all those times when the man was forced to sing all those pop tunes — in a way, this is King's declaration of independence. "But I can get a little Frank, a little Sammy, a little Ray Charles in there, in fact, all the people with soul in this", he then adds, so as not to offend the mighty colleagues in show-business — plus, he's kind of right about it, too.
On the other side of the record, King bookmarks the proceedings with six minutes of 'Watch Yourself' (it is mighty faster, though, so the overall number of bars must be pretty much the same as on 'Lucille') — again, the first time we see him truly stretch out in the studio, never letting the accompanying sax overshadow the playing, going bar over bar inventing new guitar figures on the spot; nothing particularly dazzling in the technical sense, but gives you a great rundown on the man's improvising style.
In between these two peaks of freedom, there's seven lesser, shorter songs that need no individual commenting (and not all of them are equally satisfactory — for instance, Peter Green clearly took 'I Need Your Love So Bad' closer to heart than B. B., who gives it a far more perfunctory rendition), but all of them benefit greatly from this spiritual uplifting that seems to have taken place sometime in mid-1968.
In short, even if, technically, Lucille is just another slab of generic big-band blues, it is still one of the best generic big-band blues albums of 1968, and, no matter how many changes King would later go through, it is here that he is in peak form; 'Lucille' and 'Watch Yourself', at the very least, are required listening for every blue note lover. Thumbs up.
LIVE & WELL (1969)
1) Don't Answer The Door; 2) Just A Little Love; 3) My Mood; 4) Sweet Little Angel; 5) Please Accept My Love; 6) I Want You So Bad; 7) Friends; 8) Get Off My Back Woman; 9) Let's Get Down To Business; 10) Why I Sing The Blues.
The title is a bit misleading in the logical department. Only the first half of it is Live — recorded at the Village Gate in NYC — which would presume that only the second half of it is Well; but, in fact, this is a damn fine record all the way through, with B. B.'s studio output finally catching up with the rawness and intensity of his live playing.
Although the playing, singing, and recording quality here are solid throughout, two particular tracks stand out, and, hardly by coincidence, they also bookmark the beginning and the end. As «the king» is announced on stage, he launches into 'Don't Answer The Door' with a lengthy, stunning solo, making great use of volume levels, stops-and-starts, and even prolonged vibratos that is, arguably, his first seriously «experimental» bit of playing captured on record. As good as the rest of the show may be, somehow it never lives up to King pulling all the stops on those first few bars — but then, perhaps, just a little is enough.
On the studio half, the respective opus magnum is, of course, the eight-minute sprawl of 'Why I Sing The Blues', King's first — I think — major social statement, on which he is not so much speaking for himself as basically answering, in poetic form, the question that we most often see answered in sociological form: yep, you guessed it, he is singing the blues because that is simply the most natural thing to sing for the likes of his people. The simplicity of the idea, however, becomes grandeur as B. B. comes up with a suitable arrangement (deep, rumbly, gotta love that monster distorted bass line that the band probably copped from Sly & The Family Stone) and lets it roll for as long as him and «Lucille» can take it.
One more argument, by the way, why longer B. B. King is better B. B. King: most of the other tunes are too short in their genericity to make any sort of lasting impression, but the ones that roll over five minutes are endowed with serious staying power. This rule of thumb does not apply too well to 'Friends', I admit, but that is because 'Friends' is merely an instrumental blues jam with B. B. trading licks with his jazzy counterpart Hugh McCracken, while both are accompanied in the background by Al Kooper's piano playing. Somehow, though, McCracken and Kooper come out wasted on the record — perhaps a little intimidated by the bulk of The King hanging over them to show their best chops? Still a nice document of three greats having it out in public.
As a tiny bonus, some of the jokes on the live part are not bad — e. g., B. B.'s merry "we got a brand new tune for you here tonight, it's so new the band don't know it, you don't know it — and I don't know it... but we're gonna try". Humour — where would true blues be without a sense of one? Thumbs up.
COMPLETELY WELL (1969)
1) So Excited; 2) No Good; 3) You're Losin' Me; 4) What Happened; 5) Confessin' The Blues; 6) Key To My Kingdom; 7) Crying Won't Help You; 8) You're Mean; 9) The Thrill Is Gone.
Produced by Bill Szymczyk (who is usually known as the guiding hand behind The James Gang and, more notably, the Eagles, but is a good guy all the same, neh), just like its predecessor and essentially more of the same — same band, same swagger, same style, same acute desire to modernize and assimilate that new funky sound the kids dig so much.
The big hit, however, had nothing to do with the new funky sound; it was 'The Thrill Is Gone', a song that more or less set the template for how to merge 12-bar blues with «adult contemporary». Not that the term itself existed in 1969, but you know what I mean: without this song, there'd be no Gary Moore, and both Eric Clapton's and Stevie Ray Vaughan's careers would miss at least one of their facets. Not the best one, of course, but I am merely trying to point out how influential the song turned out to be — no judgement passed.
The judgement on the song itself would, of course, be unequivocally positive. No matter how many recordings B. B. had cut in the past, he'd never really tried out the «dark soul» approach along the lines of, say, Ray Charles' 'Unchain My Heart'. In fact, the whole thing sort of evaded the attention of prime time blues players, with maybe one or two notable exceptions like those pioneering mid-Fifties singles from Otis Rush. 'Thrill Is Gone' glaringly exploits that gap, and gives us, first time ever — at least, in the eyes of this particular white-man reviewer — a B. B. King that rises high above the idea of «entertainment».
People frequently talk about Szymczyk's strings arrangement as almost the cornerstone of the entire composition, even though the strings were an afterthought, a late addition after the number had already been cut and everyone understood this was something different. Minimalistic, but expressive guitar, singing on the verge of tears (for once, without a trace of showman-like mannerisms), and deeply reaching, deadly serious bass lines and electric piano flourishes — solid business for sure. If you want, you may even search for still deeper interpretations: for instance, the louder, the more frantically B. B. is yelling that "I'm free now baby, I'm free from your spell", the clearer you understand that he is anything but free, and that the song, in his interpretation, is, above all else, about self-deception, and that the gloomy arrangement is supposed to underscore how tragically chained the protagonist is to his destiny...
...but enough of this. It's a swell performance that made B. B. King the big hero of white audiences looking for deep emotions from black men, and all the better. The rest of the album, mind you, is fairly different; so much so that one could even think of 'Thrill' as a special last minute add-on to ring the soul bells for the likes of Eric Clapton. There are the usual rip-roaring blues-rock bravados, of which the opening number 'So Excited' is particularly notable, highlighted — no, not by the usual wailing monologs from Lucille, but rather from Hugh McCracken's gruff, rhythmic wah-wah solo, with a combination of tone and melody quite unheard of in 1969, similar to Jimi's workout on 'Voodoo Chile', but more humble and somewhat more «swampy» in attitude, however you decide to interpret that epithet.
Other notable tracks include a very upbeat, very determined frontal assault on 'Confessin' The Blues'; a cool funky collective workout on 'You're Losin' Me'; and a sprawling sixteen-minute jam ('Crying Won't Help You/You're Mean') for which one just got to have patience — the true fire does not ignite until B. B. and McCracken start trading licks between each other, pretty soon erupting into a red-hot guitar battle with sparks flying off everywhere. (They sort of run it in the ground, eventually — "whach'all trying to do, kill me?" B. B. complains in the last seconds, jokingly, of course, because he knows real well, himself, that this killer band is only there to bring out the best in himself).
Thus, as much as the whole experience is overshadowed by the grand — and fully deserved — success of 'Thrill', Completely Well is a perfectly apt title for the album, and should probably be among everybody's first B. B. King purchases: late Sixties blues-rock at its finest. Thumbs up.
INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS (1970)
1) Nobody Loves Me But My Mother; 2) You're Still My Woman; 3) Ask Me No Questions; 4) Until I'm Dead And Cold; 5) King's Special; 6) Ain't Gonna Worry My Life Anymore; 7) Chains And Things; 8) Go Underground; 9) Hummingbird.
Going on in the right direction — the album may seem like either a carbon copy of Completely Well or a masterful expansion on its strong sides, depending on one's overall attitude towards B. B. King's «crossover era», but it's enjoyable in either case. This time around, Szymczyk teamed the man with an even huger throng of pop people, not the least of them Carole King herself, who does not contribute to the songwriting, but plays a steady R'n'B-ish piano on more than half of the tracks; second and third on the bill are Joe Walsh and Leon Russell, and you are well encouraged to do more research on the credits yourself — there's a ton of different people here.
Everything works, right from the start, as B. B. in person plays some mighty fine Delta blues chords on the electric piano, singing "nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jiving too" — for one minute and twenty seconds, before the whole band crashes into a rocking performance of 'You're Still My Woman'. An unsubtle way to remind us that the King still remembers his roots, but necessary, perhaps, since the rest of the album takes us pretty far away from the Delta in form, and it may require a little refreshening to make us well aware that it is still firmly rooted in the Delta in spirit.
Szymczyk may be overdoing the strings thing at times — now that the gimmick worked so well on 'Thrill Is Gone', he keeps the small orchestra in tow on a constant basis, ready to jump out and contribute each time B. B. switches into ballad mode, and sometimes even beyond that. That said, Jimmie Haskell's arrangements are modest and never get in the way of more important things — on 'You're Still My Woman', they not only do not overshadow the star of the show, but they even leave plenty of space for Carole King to show that she could always earn her living playing the honky-tonk thing in blues bars in the unlikely situation that the royalties were to run out.
The jamming is kept under stricter control this time: there is a five-minute instrumental, 'King's Special', with a brilliant guitar-piano duel between B. B. and Leon Russell, and a short bit of fooling around opens 'Ain't Gonna Worry My Life Anymore', but, overall, meandering improvs are eskewed in favor of lengthier solo bits on regular songs, which keeps the general customer better satisfied without alienating the artistically demanding audience either.
The only downside is that a couple of tracks, most notably 'Chains And Things', are an obvious attempt to recreate the success of 'Thrill Is Gone' — but, obviously, you cannot artificially recreate divine inspiration, and so the album remains without that ultimate megaton-kicker to push it over the threshold that separates «best-of-the-best» from «better-than-the-best». Leon Russell offers another chance with his own 'Hummingbird', a song that goes from darkly romantic blues ballad to all-out gospel choir anthem, and everything is splendid except that King has no guitar solos on the number, which prevents it from falling into the category of «B. B. King songs one cannot do without» — in my eyes at least, you can easily do without any B. B. King song on which Lucille gets a square treatment.
Yet these are minor quibbles. King himself, on occasion, has stated that Indianola might have been his biggest artistic statement, and, without being petty about all the details, it is easy to understand that opinion. The man was clearly on a roll: surrounded by great musicians and songwriters, a producer who understood how to update his old sound for the new age without compromising it, and enough creative freedom to revel in, he was clearly having the greatest time of his life, much like his namesake Albert, whose career was also peaking around the same years — a great time for the rejuvenation of classic electric blues. Thumbs up, of course.
LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL (1970)
1) Introduction; 2) Everyday I Have The Blues; 3) How Blue Can You Get; 4) Worry, Worry, Worry; 5) 3 O'Clock Blues; 6) Sweet Sixteen; 7) The Thrill Is Gone; 8) Please Accept My Love.
The «live prison album» genre, jump-started by Johnny Cash with his Folsom Prison record in 1968, is not a very large one — not everybody has the guts to win over this particular slice of the audience, let alone all the technical difficulties. Nevertheless, putting out a live prison album almost certainly guarantees critical respect, because, after all, what in the world can be truer to the spirit of rock'n'roll than working up a sweat before a bunch of Cool Hand Lukes, the true heroes of rock'n'roll?
Thus, even though Live In Cook County Jail is by no means King's best live album, it has garnered comparable acclaim; yet that acclaim is, I believe, triggered more by the unforgettable rounds of booing with which the inmates welcome the announcement of the presence of the local sheriff and the chief justice at the start of the show, making up for a classic live moment that really threatens to blow B. B. himself off the stage. Could, in fact, be argued that there is more genuine blues to be heard in those boos than in whatever follows. (Actually, there is a complex back story to the making of the album — apparently, a series of live shows by well-known stars at that jail was part of the new warden's plan to win over the inmates' trust in his ongoing battle with the «barn bosses», even though none of that is reflected in the performance in any way).
What follows is, actually, a very solid performance, but a very straightforward, as well: King understands that these two thousand guys in front of him won't take bullshit for an answer, and so he just runs through his biggest hits, without forcing himself to condense them but without too many improvisational or jamming bits, either. He spans his entire career, from '3 O'Clock Blues' right up to 'Thrill Is Gone', and shows us that the old magic works fine on the current criminals by launching into his usual «man — woman» monolog on 'Worry, Worry' — the audience's response makes it clearly seen that this is the kind of sermon they are quite ready to listen to.
The only other thing I can say is that 'The Thrill Is Gone', like I predicted, works beautifully even without the cellos (but to name it the ultimate live rendition of this song, like some have done, is a bit of a stretch); but overall, there is just too few songs here to merit individual comments — which brings us to the vital question of why the heck has the entire performance not been released on CD as of yet? Surely they do not mean that the whole show lasted for just over half an hour? What is their problem? What are they hiding?
B. B. KING IN LONDON (1971)
1) Caldonia; 2) Blue Shadows; 3) Alexis' Boogie; 4) We Can't Agree; 5) Ghetto Woman; 6) Wet Hayshark; 7) Part Time Love; 8) Power Of The Blues; 9) Ain't Nobody Home.
A solid recording betrayed by high expectations. Following the early 1970s trend of teaming up vintage old bluesmen with the new generation of British blues-rockers (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and a few other veterans joined the fray as well), B. B. goes to London, gets chain-linked with pretty much everyone the recording people could catch unawares, and records a friendly jam session that is... merely decent.
It is better for us all not to know, or radically forget who exactly plays what on which track (the credits list no fewer than twenty eight backers for Lucille and her man). Instead, major blues fans may just agree in between themselves that 'Caldonia' rocks pretty well for a mid-size party to be entertained in between all the skinny-dipping; that 'Blue Shadows' and 'Ghetto Woman', with moderate success, recreate the smoky gloom of 'Thrill', especially the latter with its inventive strings arrangement; that 'Alexis' Boogie' gives you a rare chance to hear the King churn it out on the acoustic (unless, of course, that is not the King at all, but then why would it be on a King record?); that 'Power Of The Blues' is no 'Blues Power' (hands up for Clapton); and that the organ playing lends a nice extra shade to 'Ain't Nobody Home'.
But if one starts winding up, as in "Peter Green is here and I can't even tell where! Are all these guys just wetting their pants in the presence of the Lord?", etc., then, of course, In London is a mighty failure and all that money it took to transport B. B. across the Atlantic should have rather gone to the poor (not to mention that there are so many people playing on here, everyone's share of royalties could hardly have covered even bathroom expenses).
In any case, with a set-up like this, at worst, you get «mediocre» results; a blues session recorded in 1971 between B. B. and British rock royalty could lack the proper spark of inspiration, but it couldn't be anything less than professional and tasteful — the production- and age-induced rut into which rootsy music would sink by the middle of the decade had not set in yet. So, if not particularly exciting, this is all adequately listenable; thumbs up.
L. A. MIDNIGHT (1972)
1) I Got Some Help I Don't Need; 2) Help The Poor; 3) Can't You Hear Me Talking; 4) Midnight; 5) Sweet Sixteen; 6) I've Been Blue Too Long; 7) Lucille's Granny.
If you happen to be big fans of Jesse Ed Davis and Joe Walsh, this one's for you: for about sixteen minutes, the album is nothing but a big show-off during which the White, Red (Jesse was fully Native American), and Black race compete for supremacy on fully friendly terms. It is fairly solid, easy-going, fluid jamming, but depends a lot on what you expect from a jam session — if you have heard plenty of them, this one probably isn't going to blow your mind or change your life. Some critics accused the guitar heroes of too much meandering and not meshing well; they may be right, because each of them plays in a different style, but, uh, what's wrong with that?
Apart from the jams, much of the album is formally expendable. There is a re-recording of 'Sweet Sixteen', for instance, with updated lyrics about Vietnam, but it adds no extra dimensions to the original; a fierce fully instrumental take on 'Help The Poor'; and a couple more mid-tempo blues de luxe numbers that are... okay.
Nevertheless, the fact that the album has not been released on CD is a doggone shame — any middle-of-the-road recording from King's peak years is still miles ahead of the overproduced crap from his later years that is constantly choking the bargain bins. For blues fans at least, this is a must-have: three blues-rock giants breathing the same studio air, imagine that! Thumbs up, modestly and humbly.
GUESS WHO (1972)
1) Summer In The City; 2) Just Can't Please You; 3) Any Other Way; 4) You Don't Know Nothin' About Love; 5) Found What I Need; 6) Neighborhood Affair; 7) It Takes A Young Girl; 8) Better Lovin' Man; 9) Guess Who; 10) Shouldn't Have Left Me; 11) Five Long Years.
Not that dumb a title, considering that the proceedings open with a Lovin' Spoonful cover — then again, B. B. has always been omnivorous, open to bluesy reworkings of everything from Beethoven to the Beatles. Overall, though, it is way too easy to guess who, especially since way too many songs on here dishearteningly hearken back to King's overproduced, underperformed balladeering style of the early Sixties.
Somehow, upon returning from London, B. B. managed to lose all the great musicians that backed him up on the 1968-1970 albums, and the result is mere languid competence. Dropping the jams, restraining the guitar in favour of ensemble playing dominated by keyboards and horns, selecting formulaic material — all of this is a very sharp drop in quality, for no apparent reason other than unlucky circumstances.
The major highlight should have been 'Five Long Years', perfectly tailored to suit B. B.'s blues-de-luxe formula, but it does not work too well, I'm afraid: Lucille has a tough time out there, pinned down by all the horns and, for some reason, opting for a smooth, tender tone rather than «blazing sharp» which is really what is needed. Even so, it is the most outstanding track on the entire album bar the unexpected, not-unpleasant but not-highly-rewarding surprise of B. B. playing out the gentle melancholy of 'Summer In The City'.
Some people care for the title track — I do not. It's as if King decided to mix in a little bit of that Champs-Elysées style with his blues pattern, and the cheesy sentimentality, swimming in pools of orchestral and keyboard sap, kills off all the healthy antibodies. Thumbs down.
TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU (1973)
1) I Like To Live The Love; 2) Respect Yourself; 3) Who Are You; 4) Love; 5) I Can't Leave; 6) To Know You Is To Love You; 7) Oh To Me; 8) Thank You For Loving The Blues.
Little known, little appreciated, To Know You is still B. B. King's juiciest attempt at an almost proper R'n'B album, with an absolute minimum of 12-bar and lots of rhythm. Recorded with the Memphis horns and the Philly rhythm section, this was done at the exactly right time, with B. B.'s competitor Albert King riding a similar brand of sound with albums like I'll Play The Blues For You and I Wanna Get Funky. Well, B. B. ended up wanting to get funky, too.
For the first time in a long, long while, if not ever, even those tracks on which King plays very little, if any, guitar, are perfectly enjoyable — just for the simple joy of listening to all these musicians gelling so perfectly, the bass, drums, rhythm guitars, keyboards, and horns whirling like freshly-oiled cogs in one of the world's smoothest-running musical machines. And when the big man starts to play, Lucille's sound is giving a smoother, slicker coating than usual, which is perfectly all right with this kind of ambience (although it would probably not work at all on something like Completely Well).
The obvious hit, highlight, and constant presence in the Church of the Latter Day Compilations, is the title track, written for King by Stevie Wonder himself (and, once you know that, you will realize that B. B.'s singing, too, is tentatively following Stevie's usual vocal modulations — perhaps it would have worked even better as a duet between the two). It is soulful, passionate, religious, and quite long, allowing it to work both as a moving love song and as a hot, pristine jam instead of failing at both; every single player shines like the sun.
It may be impossible to outdo the Staple Singers at their cut-out job, but the King still does his best at bringing a comparable amount of sincerity and conviction into his singing, and carves out a suitable weeping set of riffs for Lucille. 'I Like To Live The Love', the record's other hit, has no lead guitar at all and is happy enough to function within the generic dance-pop formula of the first half of the decade — could, perhaps, benefit from an Al Green at the helm rather than the relatively rugged delivery of old man B. B., but it is still a charming song, and not entirely gritless, either, if only for the iron groove that has it locked in its grip from first to last second.
'I Can't Leave' is the only song that reverts us fully to the standard 12-bar blues-de-luxe formula, but in the overall context it blends in well (what other B. B. King album could be said to contain one generic blues song for the sake of diversity?), and then there is also a traditional spoken blues piece at the end that thanks us for loving the blues and slowly melts away in a hushed, minimalistic jam with some of the most subtle passages in B. B.'s career.
It all works, and once again goes to show just how greatly a super-professional R'n'B band and a brilliant blues guitarist can complement each other. Now if only somebody had, at least once, thought to finish off the picture by bringing in a genius songwriter and a mindblowing singer... but, possibly, so many cooks would have killed off the broth. Let us be happy with what we have and hope that the album, only recently restored in print, will eventually solidify in its classic status. Thumbs up and a must-have for any fan of Seventies' R&B (not so sure about hardcore blues lovers, though — but let us not forget that B. B. King as such is hardly music for blues purists).
KING SIZE (1977)
1) Don't You Lie To Me; 2) I Wonder Why; 3) I Just Wanna Make Love To You; 4) Your Lovin' Turned Me On; 5) Slow And Easy; 6) Got My Mojo Working; 7) Walking In The Sun; 8) Mother For Ya; 9) The Same Love That Made Me Laugh; 10) It's Just A Matter Of Time.
In between 1973 and 1977, King somehow cut down on studio material, releasing a couple live albums in tandem with blueswailer Bobby Bland (who, contrary to one's instinctive predilection for puns, is not really as bland as one would expect him to be) and a couple compilations. When he finally returned with King Size in 1977, nobody really needed him any more; his music had completely gone off the cutting edge, and since then, most of his hits have been superstar duets (of which the cunning old fox has had plenty, but at least it is a less generally questionable way of making money than advertising with Burger King).
This, however, does not mean that no post-1973 album from Old King B. B. merits listening. This particular recording, assembled from several sessions with mostly unknown players, is, for instance, pretty swell. Why? Well, it's probably got the longest version of 'Don't You Lie To Me' ever recorded — were Chuck Berry to duckwalk all the way through it, the results would have laid to rest every single «if I walked this way...» joke in the world — and it's got a modern take on the dirty old blues 'Mother Fuyer' (from the same old stock of thinly veiled, but technically unsuable rhythm'n'blues classics as Bull Moose Jackson/Aerosmith's 'Big Ten Inch Record') — and, hearken to this, it's got the only disco rearrangement of 'Got My Mojo Working' that I know of. Surely that would mean something, to hear one king of the blues paying tribute to another king of the blues with a dorky disco bassline behind his back.
Anyway, most of the material is pretty old, and King does not play a whole lot of blistering guitar, but the arrangements work, and the emphasis is very much on real, live, interactive playing. At the height of the disco era, one could have expected far worse. It's all smooth and slick, but the grooves are non-boring; in comparison, B. B.'s colleague Albert King's albums from the same period are far more depressing, recorded by people who clearly only did this for the money. King Size, at its worst, is steadily professional, and at its best — e. g. the little bit of jamming that follows 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You' — is as incendiary as a B. B. King track can ever be.
MIDNIGHT BELIEVER (1978)
1) When It All Comes Down (I'll Still Be Around); 2) Midnight Believer; 3) I Just Can't Leave Your Love Alone; 4) Hold On (I Feel Our Love Is Changing); 5) Never Make A Move Too Soon; 6) A World Full Of Strangers; 7) Let Me Make You Cry A Little Longer.
Another excellent idea — match B. B. King, the tumbleweed connection of the blues world, with The Crusaders, one of the longest living jazz-pop bands that never had any reason to live that long. Together, they make good music: the band offers the old blues guru guy fat and tight musical backing, and the old blues guru guy pays them back with his regular lyrical spark that, for a moment, adds sense and purpose to their interplay. (Coincidentally or not, they released their biggest commercial success, Street Life, the following year, but I have never been able to get my mind focused on even one track on that album from beginning to end.)
Most of the material is original, written by The Crusaders themselves or in collaboration with Will Jennings, and follows the regular R'n'B patterns of the epoch (without any serious concessions to disco), but is very clearly geared towards King: all the blues and ballad pieces fit his style of singing, and there is also surprisingly more guitar playing from him on all the songs than even on some of his pure blues albums (where «pure», much more often than wanted, means «letting the horns guys do all the work while I satisfy my inner crooner»).
The two regular blues-rock numbers ('When It All Comes Down', 'Never Make A Move Too Soon') are fun due to all the extra touches — such as the gospel choir on the former and the loose party attitude on the latter; the sentimental ballad ('Hold On') is respectably arranged, with Lucille always louder than the soft lethargic Seventies piano sound; the funk comes properly equipped with clenched teeth and gripped fists ('A World Full Of Strangers'); and the retro-swing number 'I Just Can't Leave Your Love Alone' simply comes out of nowhere, suddenly replacing the disco bar with a speakeasy for four happy minutes.
It wouldn't make sense to rave and rant in detail about any of these songs, but the participants are clearly delighted to work with each other — and, even if unbeatable clinchers like 'Thrill Is Gone' could not be produced any longer, this is still the next best thing: a B. B. King album whose production and entertainment values are so consistently high, I could never sustain a case against even one of these songs. It is albums like Midnight Believer that should encourage you, the listener, to defy the odds and dig around in interminable discographies of «has-beens»: critics may eventually lose interest in the old dogs and leave them forever locked in the one-star collar, but that's just because they always go after the cutting-edge thing. Midnight Believer cuts no edges; it is simply a charming album that shows old man King going both with the grain and against it at the same time. Thumbs up.
TAKE IT HOME (1979)
1) Better Not Look Down; 2) Same Old Story (Same Old Song); 3) Happy Birthday Blues; 4) I've Always Been Lonely; 5) Second-Hand Woman; 6) Tonight I'm Gonna Make You A Star; 7) The Beginning Of The End; 8) A Story Everybody Knows; 9) Take It Home.
It's not bad, but something did not click this second time around. Simply put, there is a bit too much Crusaders on the album, and not enough King for me. Midnight Believer was a good mix of styles that gave us casual, non-hardcore listeners the best possible formula: B. B.'s blues essence interspersed with various catchy distractions. On Take It Home, the distractions have all but dissolved the essence.
King sings passionately enough, but Lucille, once again, finds itself playing second, if not twenty second, fiddle to all of the Crusaders' diddle; on most, perhaps all, of these numbers it's as if nobody had the patience to let the old man find a good, meaningful groove for these songs, and just went along with the second take before he even began getting into the spirit. Who cares anyway, if you're gonna mix that guitar below all the saxes and keyboards and gospel backing vocals?
Which is a pity, because the songs, generally credited to Will Jennings and Joe Sample, are decent: nothing too original, mostly just slight modifications of old blues rock and R'n'B warhorses, but nevertheless modified and rearranged to the point of justifying that generic late Seventies funky soul sound (and, once again, not a single swig of disco, although 'A Story Everybody Knows', the cheesiest number on the record, comes somewhat close). The title track is a particularly uplifting anthem, the kind of totally by-the-numbers, but still sweet and charming, R'n'B number that today's R'n'B artists have completely lost the knack of churning out — and King is able to let his singing go with the flow, but the guitar playing, alas, seriously lags behind.
The only number here that I find deserving of truly classic status is the short, almost inconspicuous 'Beginning Of The End', distinguished by its subtle buildup: first verse rhythmless — second with the rhythm section joining in — third with the brass backup really pushing it, all the way to King's ecstatic final. Up to the point, heavy on the good old guitar sound, and admirably modest. Of course, there is something ominous in the fact that the best song on a 1979 B. B. King album bears such a title, but, after all, the end has to begin somewhere. I cannot bring myself to issuing a thumbs down — I honestly enjoyed most of this platter — but it is still disappointing, considering how lucky King turned out to be in the late seventies, evading the disco temptation and staying firmly routed in the «true sound», and how he failed to make good use of that luck.
THERE MUST BE A BETTER WORLD SOMEWHERE (1981)
1) Life Ain't Nothing But A Party; 2) Born Again Human; 3) There Must Be A Better World Somewhere; 4) The Victim; 5) More, More, More; 6) You're Going With Me.
There must be a... strange atypical sound to this album that I cannot quite put my finger on, making it at least a good candidate for King's most «subtly curious» pieces of the new decade. With only six songs, most of which intentionally — and intentionally absurdly — crash the three/four minute barrier for no logical reason, and the same meandering, wobbly, slow tempo on four out of six, it's almost as if King saw to it that everyone was properly stoned for the sessions, or, at least, stripped of focus. Including himself.
This is probably why, every now and then, the songs not just cease to be showcases for Lucille — after all, King is well known for his modest handling of the spotlight — but become sprawling brass battles between saxes, trumpets, and trombones; sometimes the purple elephants take over, and the band suddenly thinks they are The Glenn Miller Orchestra. It happens at the end of the first song, then is immediately repeated at the beginning of the second, and on we go. Then it sort of dawns on the big old guy that he is here to play his guitar, and the blues is back, but the Glenn Miller guys aren't giving up too soon, resulting in something midway from polyphony to cacophony, all of it over a stumbling drum pattern whose bearer is just as drunk as everyone else.
Okay, I may be inventing things here. Actually, the playing is quite collected — it was simply a not too successful effort to explain that King never used to sound quite like this, good and bad judgements aside. And I have a pretty good idea of who might be the major disturber of the peace: Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., commonly known as Dr. John, credited here both as a piano player and one of the chief songwriters, as well as producer. If anyone can drag B. B. out of his respectable, but sleazy world of night clubs and bow ties into the disreputable universe of alligators on marijuana, it must be the man. He hasn't done his best, but he did try.
After all, who else would contribute a song entitled 'Life Ain't Nothing But A Party' to the B. B. King canon? And sit behind his back, taking good care that B. B. really gets in the spirit of it and all? This is a fine collaboration between two veterans who have something in common — namely, the ability to just lay back and enjoy life while it ain't over yet — and if only, in between all the enjoyment, they wouldn't be forgetting to play their instruments from time to time, There Must Be... could have become a minor classic of the urban blues genre for both. As it is, their spirits come off as way too seriously diluted by disturbing factors. Still a thumbs up; hard times would be lurking around the corner, but for now, King scored yet another success in evading them — in the light of his collaboration with The Crusaders going sort of sour, exchanging them, even briefly, for Dr. John was the smartest move he could have gone for in 1981, and he did go for it.
LOVE ME TENDER (1982)
1) One Of Those Nights; 2) Love Me Tender; 3) Don't Change On Me; 4) (I'd Be) A Legend In My Time; 5) You've Always Got The Blues; 6) Nightlife/Please Send Me Someone To Love; 7) You And Me, Me And You; 8) Since I Met You Baby; 9) Time Is A Thief; 10) A World I Never Made.
As skippable as this particular album is, one certainly cannot accuse B. B. of stalling. One year prior to Love Me Tender he was munching on gumbo in the company of Dr. John, before that, tried to save funky soul from disco clutches in the company of the appropriately named Crusaders, and now we discover him in Nashville, with the local playing and singing pros steering him through a series of country-pop, country-R'n'B, and occasional country-blues standards.
Admittedly, the man himself had high hopes for the record, and, in his own liner notes, described it as one of the best albums in his career. But, in all fairness, this has to do with the uncomfortable fact that King always thought of himself as at least as good a singer as a guitar player, if not better (hence all the Sings Spirituals records and other crap), and Love Me Tender is, again, for those who love their guru when he opens his mouth, not when he jerks his fingers.
The big question, of course, is whether you want to hear another version of 'Love Me Tender' in the first place, let alone from the cavities of somebody whose pet dream of becoming a black Sinatra you might not necessarily endorse. And also, whether you want to hear it played à la Eighties Nashville, in which the professionalism and versatility of country music had by then become as corrupted by laziness and the big bucks as classic R'n'B had deteriorated at Atlantic Studios. For every bit of slide guitar plucked with the utmost indifference, you get cheap synth orchestration, cheap chiming keyboards, and a rhythm section that seems to have confused minimalism with obligatory hack-work.
The irony of it all is that B. B. King really tries hard: apart from the meaningless covers of the title track and 'Since I Met You Baby', and a strange, unneccessary decision to segue 'Nightlife' into 'Please Send Me Someone To Love', he sings most of these songs in a heartfelt, confessional mode as if it all really mattered. But the complete lack of any serious effort other than pure «pro forma» on the part of his musicians kills the spirit over and over again — to the effect that the only track that made me take notice was 'You And Me, Me And You', one that dumped all intimacy and concentrated on a funky dance groove. Light, expendable, but at least fun, which is more than could be said about the rest of this boredom. Thumbs down.
BLUES 'N' JAZZ (1983)
1) Inflation Blues; 2) Broken Heart; 3) Sell My Monkey; 4) Heed My Warning; 5) Teardrops From My Eyes; 6) Rainbow Riot; 7) Darlin' You Know I Love You; 8) Make Love To Me; 9) I Can't Let You Go.
The perfect antidote to the «plastic country» of Love Me Tender — a much-needed return to the kind of generic blues-de-luxe that has always been owned by the man. Unfortunately, this also means that you get no surprises, and that the resulting LP really works best if, together with me, you are on this chronological journey through the man's career. Otherwise, there is really no reason whatsoever to prefer it to similar records from the previous three decades — except for, perhaps, reasonably clearer production.
The whole thing is very strictly Chicago blues, with a couple retro forays into jump blues ('Sell My Monkey', although, strictly speaking, this is still not far from Chicago, considering, e. g., Elmore James' love for the style), a couple re-recordings of older tunes, etc. The sole exception is King's unexpected cover of the early Atlantic R'n'B classic, 'Teardrops From My Eyes'. B. B. is certainly no Ruth Brown (he does attempt to give the lyrics a more «genuine» reading than the former Miss Rhythm, shaky voice and all, but I still vote for the lady's exalted, sexy-as-hell delivery instead), but he gives the song an exquisite guitar backing instead of the original brass accompaniment, and there is an extended vibraphone solo, of all things — did you think the «jazz» in the title was just an empty flourish? — that makes it a pretty unique track for Mr. King.
But even 'Teardrops' is an old song, and, altogether, the King has not been so straightforwardly nostalgic since... well, since the times when sounding this-a way was anything but nostalgic. (Leaving aside, that is, the fact that the lyrics to the old number 'Inflation Blues' must have sounded fairly relevant back in the day — come to think of it, here is one song that may never want to go out of style). Relistening to this living relic must have been an aftershock to the man himself — the only explanation for why he had to go out and produce one of his worst ever albums immediately afterward. Why? Because nothing gets people, particularly bluesmen, in the mood for brutal crap as much as the acute feeling of sounding outdated.
SIX SILVER STRINGS (1985)
Not many kind words can be applied to this album, but one thing definitely makes it worth checking out. If you glance at the track list, you will naturally expect track two, 'Big Boss Man', to be B. B. King's professional, but most likely uninspiring rendition of Jimmy Reed's old blues classic. Few things in this world can be more confusing, then, than getting around to it and hearing the easily recognizable dance beats and piano rhythms of... Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'. Trust me, there is something transcendental about the experience. Absurdist to the core, and yet completely unintentional at the same time. One of those classic moments in the history of human ridiculousness that almost ends up justifying it.
Unfortunately, only if most of this album matched the silliness standard of 'Big Boss Jean', would there be some decent reason to talk about it. As it is, King's 50th album, as it so gloriously states on the golden seal of the front cover, is a pretty gloomy affair. After the stark retro approach of Blues'n'Jazz, B. B. moves into the opposite direction: the Eighties bug finally caught up with the man, and, with a couple of exceptions that might have been outtakes from earlier sessions ('My Guitar Sings The Blues'), all of this suffers from typical overproduction — plastic electronic drums, synthesizers, etc., and an almost complete dehumanization of the playing: King's vocals and guitar are your only friends throughout, and do they ever feel lonely.
It is quite ironic that the material itself is not half-bad: old standards like Wilson Pickett's 'In The Midnight Hour', under normal conditions, would agree with King's style perfectly, and there are some fine new songs, too — the title track and 'Memory Lane' are touching nostalgic ballads; 'My Lucille' is one of those honest anthems to B. B.'s primary working tool that can do no wrong; and even corny arena rock like 'Into The Night', given the proper treatment, could have given King a serious chance to tame the genre (the song was written and recorded specially for the soundtrack of John Landis' flop movie of the same name, and it's probably the best thing about the movie, even if that's hardly saying much).
But, over the years, it has emerged fairly clearly that, unless one indiscriminately finds all B. B. King albums equally exchangeable in terms of general goodness, a B. B. King album is really only as good as the individual talents whose songwriting, producing, and playing matches King's own; and Six Silver Strings, instead of The Crusaders or Dr. John or Joe Walsh at least, has the man surrounded by faceless, if friendly, hacks. Certainly, he has to be commended for succumbing to crap values so late in his career — his namesake Albert, in comparison, had been overwhelmed and overpowered since at least 1976 — but that is hardly relevant to the overall thumbs down that Six Silver Strings deserves on its own.
SPOTLIGHT ON LUCILLE (1986)
1) Slidin' And Glidin'; 2) Blues With B. B.; 3) King Of Guitar; 4) Jump With B. B.; 5) 38th Street Blues; 6) Feedin' The Rock; 7) Just Like A Woman; 8) Step It Up; 9) Calypso Jazz; 10) Easy Listening Blues; 11) Shoutin' The Blues; 12) Powerhouse.
It should be mentioned here that, for at least a few decades since B. B.'s original departure from RPM Records in 1962, that label, along with its legal inheritors, had been steadily pumping out further product, carefully measuring out small chunks of whatever Lucille's old fiancée happened to leave behind in the vaults before the move. The result is something like five or seven or ten or twelve (nobody really knows except for the most well-educated of B. B.'s discographers, and they are all dangerous people) LPs that nobody has any real reason to hear, let alone write about; his original official RPM output was always inconsistent, so what's to be said about outtakes?
Spotlight On Lucille may be deemed a valuable exception, though. Released in 1986, it deceptively sported a quite contemporary photo of the man, possibly duping quite a few fans into thinking they were paying money for B. B.'s latest greatest. Well, they weren't, and what a good thing that was: instead of getting another patchy bunch of crappy Eighties product, they were in for a real treat — with the spotlight on Lucille, indeed, this is a collection of instrumentals, mostly recorded around 1960-61. Only a few of them had been previously released.
If something like Easy Listening Blues, King's earliest completely instrumental album, was only so-so because the master sessions failed to extract the proper effort from the man, Spotlight has the compilation benefit. It seems to have been assembled with enough love for the man's talent to include not just any instrumentals with Lucille on top, but those where the playing really mattered. The surprising highlight, for instance, is a ten-minute long jam ('Blues With B. B.') that proves, once and for all, that King did go for long improvisatory jams in those days; he just could not dream of being able to put them on record, what with the 12 songs/3 minutes each reservations that kept American popular music stalled for so long.
Of course, these were still the early days; B. B. had not yet significantly increased his number of guitar tones, had not fully mastered the art of vibrato, had not learned to flash his minimalistic style at the listener. But he was already well-versed in many kinds of playing styles, and Spotlight takes good care reminding us of the fact that he was not merely an expressive 12-bar stylist ('Slidin' And Glidin', 'King Of Guitar'), but that he loved to boogie ('38th Street Blues'), shuffle ('Feedin' The Rock'), bop ('Just Like A Woman'), rhumba ('Calypso Jazz'), and do big-band jazz with the boys ('Powerhouse').
A few of the instrumentals feature brass solos from the band as well, which is not a problem — the balance is near-ideal, with the brass offering occasionally necessary relief from Lucille's never changing high-pitched tone, but never ever letting us forget who is really the man in charge. And B. B. is truly in charge throughout, contributing remarkably similar, but never quite identical solos. The ten-minute long jam is not a masterpiece, but it may really be one of the few, if not the only, historical trace of the man taking as much time as he wanted to develop a musical idea back in the early Sixties, and officially released lengthy blues jams from 1960 may be counted on the fingers of one hand — for all we know, one might think blues jamming as such was invented in the UK of 1965 and 1966 rather than where you'd actually expect it to happen.
In short, this, rather than the miserably modernized Six Silver Strings, should have been B. B.'s proper 50th album — these days, it sounds far more fresh and far less dated than everything the man was recording in 1986 in person. Thumbs up.
KING OF BLUES (1989)
1) (You've Become A) Habit To Me; 2) Drowning In The Sea Of Love; 3) Can't Get Enough; 4) Standing On The Edge; 5) Go On; 6) Let's Straighten It Out; 7) Change In Your Lovin'; 8) Undercover Man; 9) Lay Another Log On The Fire; 10) Business With My Baby; 11) Take Off Your Shoes.
Not to be confused with the old King Of The Blues LP, nor with various compilations of the same name that, truth be told, generally bear it with much more confidence than this overproduced curio piece. Overproduced, but not nearly as worthless as its predecessor. King teamed up with moderately better corporate songwriters this time, and at least there is some real music coming out of the speakers here, rather than the dehumanized electronic dribble into which ye olde classic R'n'B was rapidly deteriorating.
In other words, the record had a slight chance of becoming B. B.'s Midnight Believer for the 1980s. He does not come across as totally uninspired, his sidemen write some tolerable pop ditties and funk rockers, do not make the mistake of saddling him with power ballads, and bring in little-known, but tolerable pros on bass and sax. Alas, they go on to forget two things. First, the man they're dealing with is the king of the blues — that is, after all, what the title says — and, in that respect, there is surprisingly little blues on the album. Second, behind all the keyboards and saxes they forget that the king is here to play his guitar. Not through any evil intent, I'm sure: they just forget. And when they remember, it is sometimes better if they didn't, because on several tracks it clearly looks like Lucille is being run through some yucky synth effect, completely losing the King thing to it.
One excellent number is 'Lay Another Log On The Fire', a hot'n'heavy soul screamer in B. B.'s best traditions, with Lucille clean and crisp, breaking through the sax-and-background-vocals of the blues-de-luxe arrangement as confidently as if she had not just been sterilized with synthesizer treatment at all. A few other tracks at the end, such as 'Business With My Baby Tonight', also have a relatively clean sound — perhaps they were recorded in a different session — but remember that in order to get around to them, you have to pass through the mind-numbing chorus of 'Standing On The Edge' (repeated something like a million times), the drum machines of 'Drowning In The Sea Of Love', the corporate hit-writing machinery of 'Undercover Man', and other things too morally corrupt to mention.
I freely admit to being a little thrilled with '(You've Become A) Habit To Me', though. Despite the cheesy synths, and the treated Lucille sound, the song rides a lean, mean bass line, and establishes a cool atmosphere through the cooperation between that bass and King's vocals. Just one of those several thousand Eighties-recorded songs that had the bad luck to be generated in the mainstream strongholds of that decade, and deserve a rebirth under proper conditions. Couldn't exactly confirm the same for the rest of the material, though, so thumbs down — just in case.
LIVE AT SAN QUENTIN (1990)
1) Intro; 2) Let The Good Times Roll; 3) Every Day I Have The Blues; 4) A Whole Lot Of Lovin'; 5) Sweet Little Angel; 6) Never Make A Move Too Soon; 7) Into The Night; 8) Ain't Nobody's Business; 9) The Thrill Is Gone; 10) Peace To The World; 11) Nobody Loves Me But My Mother; 12) Sweet Sixteen; 13) Rock Me Baby.
Another album — another live album — another live prison album. Apparently, San Quentin's metal detectors filtered out most of the synthesizers and electronic drums, meaning that it is just another regular B. B. King live album, not any better than the average B. B. King live album, but hardly worse, either, which is respectable given the man's age at the time (sixty-five). But enough of me for now, let us hear what Michael G. from the All Music Guide has to say about the record:
«B. B. King's pleas to the literally captive audience for a round of applause for the guards watching over the prisoners on his first live album in nearly a decade is almost laughable. Unlike Johnny Cash's smirking irony on his album recorded at the same facility in 1969, where you can sense Cash's disdain for the captors is just as strong as the inmates', King seems to be totally oblivious to the fact that these are prisoners being held against their will. And that's the problem with this competent, if unremarkable, record: King is merely going through the motions. He could just as well be playing to a blue-blooded audience under the stars at some shed in the Midwest.»
I do not want to make a habit of quoting other people's reviews, but in this particular case, I spent quite some time wondering whether to laugh or cry, so apparently this particular judgement is worth a quote. For some reason, I'd always thought that normally entertainers entertain — that's their day job — and when they perform before a bunch of inmates, they normally go on entertaining, particularly since inmates may be in more need of entertainment than us free (for now) citizens. And, just like the much older Cooks County album, King's San Quentin gives the inmates their fair share of solid entertainment. His worst «crime» may be in trying to get a few cheers for the warden from the audience (resulting in a healthy, voluminous BOOO!), but hey, the warden gave him a medal out there, he was only trying to return the kindness.
Comparing this well-meaning, good-natured — and obviously quite well enjoyed by the audience — performance with Cash's album, just because both happened to be recorded at the same place, does not even begin to miss the point, because there is no point to be missed. (Of course, B. B. should have known better when he was selecting the location; comparisons would be absolutely inevitable). Cash, most of his life, played «the thinking man's country», and his small set of prison albums did not so much intend to entertain as to stimulate (and reducing his approach to «smirking irony» and «disdain for the captors» is almost demeaning, as if the reviewer wanted to make some sort of Angela Davis out of the man). King is an entertainer all the way through, but an honest, passionate, and talented one.
So yes, the first song is 'Let The Good Times Roll', and those who have not heard the album can be understood with their reservations. For those who have, all that matters is that the band plays it well, the ol' man hollers like he's twenty years old, and when he calls in for audience participation, the entire hall explodes with a "let the good times roll!" as if they were all sitting "under the stars at some shed in the Midwest". And that's the biggest asset of this record: King may be going through the motions for all I know, but the people out there are genuinely happy.
If there is something to complain about on a serious rather than socially pseudo-concerned basis, it's that the band is a little rough, almost as if some of the inmates were actually sitting in, and this takes its toll on classics like 'Thrill Is Gone' (rushed and perfunctory — for a comparably dazzling performance from the same era, check out the live version from Montreux 1993). Also, although the only «new» live number, 'Into The Night', stripped from its Eighties production, somehow fits in with the oldies, there was hardly any need to insert the studio recording of the cheerful, but dumb 'Peace To The World' in the middle and covering it in fake applause. (And I am ready to concede a point to Mr. M. G. of the All-Music Guide here: "Let's all get together and bring peace to the world" are obvious lines for that obligatory audience participation bit, but in San Quentin? Not even the Soviet Union went that far in its correction policies. And not everyone is smart enough to understand that it was, in fact, a studio track).
Other than all that, just another good B. B. King live album — well, any B. B. King live album is a good one unless the sound quality is crappy, and San Quentin got fabulous acoustics. Johnny Cash already figured that out. Thumbs up.
LIVE AT THE APOLLO (1991)
1) When Love Comes To Town; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) The Thrill Is Gone; 4) Ain't Nobody's Bizness; 5) Paying The Cost To Be The Boss; 6) All Over Again; 7) Nightlife; 8) Since I Met You Baby; 9) Guess Who; 10) Peace To The World.
Not content with filling in the shoes of Johnny Cash, less than a year later B. B. went out again and, this time, tried on those of James Brown. (Live At Leeds, Live At Budokan, and Live In Red Square are all titles that we expect to see in the next two or three centuries, regardless of whether Mr. King already got there or is still biding his time). It is not entirely clear if the folks at the Apollo wanted the man that much more than the inmates at San Quentin, but it is entirely clear that King, at least, seems to feel more at home over here than over there (then again, come to think of it, who wouldn't? Leadbelly, perhaps?). This is reflected not just in the generally cooler swagger of the actual performances, but also in the decrease of the amount of stage banter — with no need to soothe or sway the appreciative crowd, B. B. just buries himself in the singing and playing, reducing audience participation to a bare minimum.
There is a huge backing band here, the Philip Morris Super Band led by piano great Gene Harris, ensuring the ideal blues-de-luxe accompaniment, although some have complained that the band's talents have pretty much been wasted: King does not provide a lot of breathing space, nor does he budge away from his typical material into jazzier territory. On the other hand, this is a B. B. King live album, and he had let other people overshadow his playing and singing so many times in his life that, sometimes, a great professional band may suffer becoming a great professional backing band — and it does that with plenty of verve and understanding. (Gene Harris does have a few juicy piano solos, if you are wondering).
The setlist is almost completely predictable; the only drop of fresh blood is U2's contribution to the catalog, the perfectly B.-B.-Kingish blues-pop-rocker 'When Love Comes To Town' (which here almost ends up sounding like one of his 1950s hits, rather than the modern, Bonified version on U2's Rattle & Hum). On the other hand, he resuscitates some long-time oldies, e. g. 'All Over Again', sort of King's personal equivalent of the tragic theater of 'St. James Infirmary', lyrically diluted for the public at large, and Ivory Joe Hunter's 'Since I Met You Baby', a song that also fits his easy-going, nice-mannered persona to a tee.
The good news is that the man is in top form, the band is well-oiled, and most of the songs are classic; of the latter day live albums from King, Apollo is one of the most obvious choices. The bad news is that it may all be a little too slick — the setlist is too choked with crowdpleasers, and King is playing it all too safe, never soloing for too long and not taking any chances. 'The Thrill Is Gone', for instance, fades out before it even crosses the four-minute mark, despite the fact that, normally, it is one of King's usual improvisation launchpads. He only gets to truly stretch out on 'All Over Again', much less so on 'Sweet Sixteen'.
Yes, he can certainly be excused for wanting to go out there and make a «proper» live album for all the nice ladies and gentlemen who have been so good to him over the years — but that is no excuse for not releasing that real live album that the fans would really want from him. It is amazing to realize how many times people have witnessed the man ripping Live At The Regal to shreds while onstage — yet, for some bizarre reason, he still has not authorized the release of an official live album to prove that to non-concert-goers.
THERE IS ALWAYS ONE MORE TIME (1991)
A modest return to form after two of the man's worst studio albums in a row. With the Eighties over, it became possible to return to nicer production values — the poison-synths and drum machines are gone, replaced by more normal playing. To B. B.'s credit, he would, from now on, be for the most part free of the technophilia bug, meaning that one does not run a serious risk of sticking with something atrocious even when picking up any of his latest albums at random.
The bad news is that King's backing band here is just as faceless as the robots on those Eighties records. Jim Keltner is a solid drummer with an immaculate pedigree, but he is a great addition to an already solid team, not some amazing percussion wizard who can make sticks and stones come alive; the bass player, whoever he is, just plays bass; and the keyboard players, instead of playing decent instruments, rely on those dead-sounding electronic pianos that seemed to have been all the rage in blues-rock around the time (they're still around, of course, but their sound range seems to have at least slightly improved with the passing years). No brass backing whatsoever, for unknown reasons (hard times?). Lucille seems to have been the only living soul on the album, but King uses her sparingly, and even when he does, we have the usual problem — her voice is way too thin to properly arrive at us from behind the keyboard muck.
It's all a pity, because there are some good songs here: most of the album had been written through the collaborative effort of Will Jennings and Joe Sample — the same team that gave him his good stuff during the 1978-79 stint with The Crusaders — and, just like before, their contributions are spotty, but enjoyable. Most importantly, the melodies return that gritty, aggressive feel that King's records from the last decade generally missed. 'I'm Moving On' opens the album on a note of such triumphant decision that, with a better arrangement, the song should have been a triumphant comeback for the old boy, but with those keyboards... eh.
Some of the tracks are fine mood pieces: 'Back In L. A.' is one of those laid back «city of good and evil» anthems that can be either cheap cliché mixes or inspired new takes on the old thing, and I'd vote for the latter; 'The Blues Come Over Me' certifiedly does have the blues come over him (and somebody gives him a bit of proper piano backing, for once!); and 'Mean And Evil' is simply fun — the big man is always at his best when putting the blame on his woman. That's what all big men manage to do best of all, anyway.
But clearly, the magnum opus here is the title track, written by and dedicated to the late Doc Pomus, the second-rate genius (well, not all great somgwriters can be first-rate) behind lots of classic R&B hits and drunken Dr. John rave-ups. Although King tends to sing well throughout the whole album, this particular performance is obviously and understandably his most emotional, and it's got what the rest of the album don't got — a grand rippin' guitar solo at the end, with Jim Keltner finally latching on to something of value and showing why they made a good choice in inviting him to the sessions.
Most people will probably shrug their shoulders upon reading King's "This is the best album I've recorded in my career" in the liner notes, and start looking around for invisible ink traces of "...since the previous one". Perhaps, though, it was not merely a trivial marketing move: the cool thing about King is, he's always lived for the moment, and it may simply mean that, while recording One More Time, he'd simply forgotten about — or, perhaps, intentionally stripped himself of — all memories of past experiences. Who knows, maybe that's the sort of thing that allows him to live up to 80+ years and not feel worried about it. Fact is, he doesn't really feel like he's 66 years old on here. And I feel fine, too, about giving this a thumbs up, despite the undeniable blandness of the sound — and the simple truth that this is, of course, not the best album he's recorded in his career. Come to think of it, what's he ever done to tell his listeners what is best and what is worst? Who does he think he is — Stephen Thomas Erlewine?
BLUES SUMMIT (1993)
1) Playin’ With My Friends; 2) Since I Met You Baby; 3) I Pity The Fool; 4) You Shook Me; 5) Something You Got; 6) There’s Something On Your Mind; 7) Little By Little; 8) Stormy Monday; 9) You’re The Boss; 10) We’re Gonna Make It; 11) I Gotta Move Out Of This Neighborhood/Nobody Loves Me But My Mother; 12) Everybody’s Had The Blues.
You know for sure that something is not right when, all of a sudden, the king does not show up any more without laying his head on the shoulders of his courtiers. B. B. had enjoyed an occasional duet or two in the past, but starting in the early Nineties, he switched to duet mode on an almost full-time basis. It might not even have been for money reasons, more for the psychological factor: all of these stars, young and old, getting together and paying homage to the one and only would automatically mean that the one and only was still the one and only.
From a purely technical point of view, Blues Summit is unbeatable. King sings, Lucille wails, and the guests range from forgotten, but still venerable has-beens (Ruth Brown, Irma Thomas) to grizzly old veterans who only get better with age (Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker) to newer stars with plenty of potential (Robert Cray). The songs are diverse enough — from pure 12-bar to boogie blues to R’n’B — and some of the numbers bravely go over five, six, seven minutes to let the agents show their full force.
From a more feelings-based point of view, Blues Summit is excruciatingly stiff, lifeless, and boring. All of these guests know perfectly well what they are there for — to tip their hat to the big man — and the matters of courtesy and politeness consistently take over matters of excitement and emotionality. This album is not another stop on B. B.’s own journey, it’s a set of five-minute detours on everybody else’s journeys to take a look at the old curio man. A fun project, but essentially meaningless: glitzy blues free of true soul, but full of gross mannerisms, best illustrated by the forced «sobbing» on the re-recording of ‘Nobody Loves Me But My Mother’.
There are some excellent bits of guitar interplay, though, particularly on the Albert Collins duet (‘Stormy Monday’) and the Joe Louis Walker one (‘Everybody’s Had The Blues’); on the other hand, the numbers with Buddy Guy (a clumsily choreographed ‘I Pity The Fool’) and John Lee Hooker (‘You Shook Me’, with annoyingly overacted stuttering from Hooker) are almost completely wasted. Lots of ladies add generically powerful urban blues vocals to five of the tracks, with disastrous effect — they all try to match King’s singing style so closely that it is almost impossible to distinguish Katie Webster from Koko Taylor, or Etta James from Irma Thomas, even though in real life they all have significantly different personalities.
If this review read like a typical blurb out of the All-Music Guide, it is because Blues Summit is exactly the kind of album for which the All-Music Guide has been invented: a huge credits list from which to draw on trivia, and zero artistic significance that makes it a great target for the «You’d think that... but then again, no» formula. And an AMG-style review deserves an AMG-style closing line — how about this: «As far as we can tell, B. B. King has regained his regalia, at the expense of relinquishing his relevance».
DEUCES WILD (1997)
1) If You Love Me; 2) The Thrill Is Gone; 3) Rock Me Baby; 4) Please Send Me Someone To Love; 5) Baby I Love You; 6) Ain't Nobody Home; 7) Pauly's Birthday Boogie; 8) There Must Be A Better World Somewhere; 9) Confessin' The Blues; 10) Hummingbird; 11) Bring It On Home To Me; 12) Paying The Cost To Be The Boss; 13) Let The Good Times Roll; 14) Dangerous Mood; 15) Crying Won't Help You; 16) Night Life.
King's second duets album in a row — third, actually, if one counts Lucille & Friends from 1995, which looks like a compilation of previously released and unreleased tracks from multiple sessions — would seem to confirm the suspicion that he had completely relegated himself to «elder sideman» status, forever satisfied with selling his records on the strength of other people's names. But at least he is getting better at it: Deuces Wild is a far more interesting record than Blues Summit, for a number of reasons.
First, the guest list is more diverse and, in places, unpredictable. It is no surprise, and hardly a guarantee of success, to see Eric Clapton or the entirety of the Rolling Stones sucking up to the King — but what about Van Morrison or Willie Nelson? Dave Gilmour on second guitar? Jools Holland and his honky-tonk? Ex-Roxy Music guy Paul Carrack? Let's face it, there ain't a single professional musician in this world that would seriously mind having a go at it with the King himself, and this time around, the King took notice and expanded his formerly tight list of generic blues friends so much that at least a few interesting things were bound to happen. And, of course, a few boring or ugly ones, but when you're being random like that, it's heads or tails all over again with each new track.
Highlights: 'If You Love Me', a Van Morrison song written and sung by Van Morrison while B. B. produces moody background in the background. Sweet. Tracy Chapman's weirdly wobbly vocals on 'The Thrill Is Gone', offering yet another spirited reinvention of the song. Bizarre. 'Pauly's Birthday Boogie' with Jools Holland — instrumental jump-blues from days long gone by, the King rocking us back to the innocent days of the 1950s. Nostalgic. 'Hummingbird' — nobody needs to be a huge fan of Dionne Warwick, but the song had always called for a female performance, and she is more than adequate on supporting her man out here. Romantic. 'Night Life' — Willie Nelson makes this clichéd old standard sound nicely personal again: you can't go wrong, anyway, with the most intelligent-sounding voice in country music lending it extra credence. Smart.
Lowlights: neither Clapton nor Jagger are at their best, the former taking all due precautions not to outplay the master and ending up sounding bland (the same problem that also marred the duo's full-fledged collaboration, Riding With The King), and the latter not really having sounded all that impressive on any 12-bar blues numbers since at least 1966 or so (I mean, the Stones' rendition of 'Stop Breaking Down' is astoundingly great, but purely because of its guitar sound, not due to the vocals). There is also a silly rap number with Heavy D somewhere out there that does not justify its existence — you don't do rap when you're 72 years old; trust me, there are much better ways to show the young 'uns you're in real great shape.
The rest fluctuates somewhere in the middle (Bonnie Raitt is good, Joe Cocker not so good, Marty Stuart and Zucchero make me yawn, Mick Hucknall nearly outsings the man, etc.), still enough to keep things slightly above average and, in general, justify this duet format. It does not seem so much a question of gelling — they all get in the swing easy enough — as it is a question of refreshing: for every guest that honestly brings stuff to the table, there is another one that only takes from it. Still a thumbs up — after the stiffness of Blues Summit, this one is the epitome of liveliness in comparison. Particular thanks should probably go to veteran producer John Porter — either for doing things right, or for staying out of the way long enough to make them come right, I don't exactly know which.
BLUES ON THE BAYOU (1998)
1) Blues Boys Tune; 2) Bad Case Of Love; 3) I'll Survive; 4) Mean Ole' World; 5) Blues Man; 6) Broken Promise; 7) Darlin' What Happened; 8) Shake It Up And Go; 9) Blues We Like; 10) Good Man Gone Bad; 11) If I Lost You; 12) Tell Me Baby; 13) I Got Some Outside Help I Don't Need; 14) Blues In G; 15) If That Ain't It I Quit.
This recording, as close to really good as it is far from really great, is perhaps the closest King ever got, in his later years, to recapturing the vibe of his early years. The liner notes emphasize this return to basics, but nothing emphasizes it as well as the music itself. Straightahead generic 12-bar, no bull attached. No duets, no super-guest-stars, no fancy-wancy hi-tech production tricks, no particular concept, no hit single, and, best of all, no forced attempts at «proving» something. Just a basic blues session for a basic blues guy, working his stuff and loving it.
The predictable down side is that there is nothing to cling to. The setlist is a mix of old standards with a few new, spur-of-the-moment compositions; the backing is fabulously professional and fabulously devoted to staying in the back (it is, after all, rather rude to compete with The King, especially considering he's about as old as all of his players put together); and there is not a single lick here we haven't already heard on earlier records.
Individually, I could perhaps recommend the opening instrumental 'Blues Boys Tune', one of the few, if not the only, pure soul-blues entry here, giving the man ampler possibilities of stretching out; the boogie number 'Shake It Up And Go', an unfrequent occasion of the man cheating on Lucille in favour of an acoustic; and the barroom shakedown of 'If That Ain't It I Quit', with the title constituting the song's only lyrical line.
Collectively, it all adds up to yet another nice disc to put up during partytime or to encourage your grandparents in the «see here, Grandaddy, that's how old folks are supposed to exorcise their boredom» manner. Big additional question mark about the album title — there is nothing even vaguely bayou-like on the record, cleanest-style Chicago blues imaginable. But in all other respects, it's an honest down-to-earth offering, so thumbs up. Bring back the duets now, maybe?
LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL (1999)
1) Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens; 2) Is You Is, Or Is You Ain't (My Baby); 3) Beware, Brother, Beware; 4) Somebody Done Changed The Lock On My Door; 5) Ain't That Just Like A Woman; 6) Cho Choo Ch'Boogie; 7) Buzz Me; 8) Early In The Mornin'; 9) I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town; 10) Jack, You're Dead!; 11) Knock Me A Kiss; 12) Let The Good Times Roll; 13) Caldonia; 14) It's A Great, Great Pleasure; 15) Rusty Dusty Blues; 16) Sure Had A Wonderful Time Last Night; 17) Saturday Night Fish Fry; 18) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out.
Ten years on, this album has obviously lost any relevance it might have ever possessed, but in 1999 it may have done a decent job of introducing a handful of young B. B. King fans (yes, the brand name does indeed attract young fans on a continuous basis) to the legacy of Louis Jordan, a whoppin' eighteen cuts from which are faithfully covered here by King, assisted on piano — and, once, on vocals — by none other than Dr. John.
Naturally, Louis Jordan was as much of a seasoned pro and underrated genius at his schtick — jump blues and swing — as B. B. King was at his; naturally, it is just as unlikely for B. B. King to excel at Jordan-style jazz as it would have been unlikely for Jordan to excel at King-style blues. That B. B. was a devout fan of Jordan is beyond doubt: he'd already covered 'Let The Good Times Roll' on many an occasion, and his entertainment style borrowed lots of its easy-going elements from Jordan's. But to do an entire album of Jordan tunes, including prime Louis cuts whose musical table tennis between Jordan and his band is supposed to take one's breath away like nothing else, that takes quite a bit of gall. How the man came up with the idea in the first place, we'll never know. The big questions are — (a) does he pull it off? and (b) what's the payoff?
Surprisingly, it all works. Had B. B. concentrated on Jordan's slow blues stuff, such as 'I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town' or the album-closing 'Nobody Knows You' (which Jordan never «owned» as such but, apparently, covered), he would have turned it into just another blues album — a regularly good blues album, perhaps, well suited to King's style and persona, but it would be rather silly to call it a Louis Jordan tribute album. On the contrary, most of the album is devoted to Jordan's fast, rollickin' numbers that give B. B. a chance to flash his boogie licks — a chance that he doesn't use nearly as often as he should, usually ceding the spotlight to Dr. John and the brass section and concentrating on the singing.
This is where he is bound to lose: no matter how easy-going and inspired his backing band is, nobody can beat the original Tympany Five, and no matter how convincing and authentic B. B. is in his phrasing, he wasn't born with it the way Jordan always seemed to be. B. B.'s guitar and Dr. John's piano are the two edges that they have over the original, but the original was all about singing and brass interplay — it's a little like trying to improve on Chuck Berry by adding a master church organ player to 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man'.
It is admirable that the end result is as much fun as it really is, but, honestly, at best Let The Good Times Roll is a one-time listen to admire the man's lively spirit: let us not forget that the man was a whoppin' seventy-four years old while boppin' and groovin' to the merry sounds of 'Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens' (in comparison, Jordan was sixty-seven when he died, and pretty much stopped boppin' and groovin' upon reaching the age of fifty). For that alone, it definitely deserves a thumbs up, and now go do yourself a favour — pick up one of those cheap Jordan compilations available everywhere, and 'Let The Good Times Roll'!
MAKIN' LOVE IS GOOD FOR YOU (2000)
1) I Got To Leave This Woman; 2) Since I Fell For You; 3) I Know; 4) Peace Of Mind; 5) Monday Woman; 6) Ain't Nobody Like My Baby; 7) Makin' Love Is Good For You; 8) Don't Go No Farther; 9) Actions Speak Louder Than Words; 10) What You Bet; 11) You're On Top; 12) Too Good To You Baby; 13) I'm In The Wrong Business; 14) She's My Baby.
"Makin' love is good for you", King tells us with the complacency of a man who really knows what he's talking about — implying that, perhaps, makin' love is still good for him, too, regardless of the discrepancy between the year 2000 and his own birthdate, usually given as 1925. Admittedly, it is great to know that the guy is still doing well in the life-enjoying department. Unfortunately, it is the only great thing about this album.
(Well, perhaps, other than letting us know that all of these years he's been "in the wrong business": "Should've been like Michael Jackson when I was the age of five / But I chose this guitar, now I'm broke and can't survive" — ha ha. Then again, considering the man's embarrassing stunt for Burger King two years later, perhaps he was being serious. No one can contest, after all, that the King of Pop did make a hell of a lot more dough than the King of Blues — on the other hand, whose life has been the longer and happier one?).
Anyway, Makin' Love is simply one more Blues On The Bayou: exact same band, exact same production, exact same styles and exact same evenness bordering on the boring, or maybe just plain boring — the «bordering» explained by the fact that it takes some guts to call a B. B. King album «boring». However, having already digested most of the man's discography, we now know what kind of things the man is really capable of, and few, if any, of these heights are scaled on Makin' Love's relatively timid and tepid workouts.
I wish I could recommend an outstanding solo or vocal part, but I cannot. 'I'm In The Wrong Business' is, indeed, a fun curio and a potential laugh riot for the jaded B. B. fan, just because the lyrics are so outrageous. As for the guitar licks — each one of these you've heard a million times by now, and, at the very least, owning Blues On The Bayou automatically makes owning Makin' Love a complete waste of your money. Choose one and leave the other for your enemy.
1) Exactly Like You; 2) On My Word Of Honor; 3) I Want A Little Girl; 4) I'll String Along With You; 5) I Need You; 6) A Mother's Love; 7) (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons; 8) Neighborhood Affair; 9) Tomorrow Night; 10) There I've Said It Again; 11) Always On My Mind; 12) Cross My Heart; 13) What A Wonderful World.
It's been quite some time since B. B. concentrated exclusively on his sentimental side, so he can certainly be excused for spending a well-tucked evening with The Great American Cornbook on his lap. More than that, he can be excused for triggering a predictable series of associations: «Old time balladry» + «78 years of age» + «an album called Reflections» → «nostalgia» / «looking back on that long long road» / «that old, tired noble heart» → RESPECT.
None of which surmises that anyone will ever be interested in hearing this album more than once — the usual fate for about 70% of King's output, for sure, but Reflections doesn't even make for decent party music this time, unless you're talking about your grandparents' high school reunion party, and even in that case it is not clear why they would want to hear B. B. King impersonating Nat King Cole, Armstrong, and Dionne Warwick instead of the real thing.
Factual data are scarce and uninteresting. The arrangements are loud and bombastic, with lots of brass and strings and very little guitar, although, to be honest, when B. B. is in the mood for a soulful solo, he does it admirably well, e. g. 'On My Word Of Honor'. There is a strangely large amount of steel and slide guitar, too, which may be puzzling for those who are well aware of the man's monogamy, but, apparently, most, if not all, of those parts are played by wiz kid Doyle Bramhall II. It gives the proceedings a slightly Nashvillified whiff, too, which is OK by me — anything to take the emphasis off that high school ballroom spirit is welcome.
Maybe — a very uncertain maybe — but still, maybe the album could have been turned into something vaguely more interesting had its production not been entrusted to Simon Climie, the man almost single-handedly responsible for strangling Eric Clapton's mid-1990s comeback in the cradle and, consequently, for making the Clapton/King collaboration (Riding With The King) ten times less the experience that it could have been. The man has an unparalleled gift for sucking life, energy, and brawn out of anything — he could probably make Manowar sound like Bread without them noticing. On the other hand, it is not clear how exactly would it be possible to breathe new life into those dusty old standards, especially if the artist behind them is a dusty old relic himself (no offense). Thumbs down — avoid unless you're on a really acute sentimental kick.
1) Early In The Morning; 2) Tired Of Your Jive; 3) The Thrill Is Gone; 4) Need Your Love So Bad; 5) Ain't Nobody Home; 6) Hummingbird; 7) All Over Again; 8) Drivin' Wheel; 9) There Must Be A Better World Somewhere; 10) Never Make Your Move Too Soon; 11) Funny How Time Slips Away; 12) Rock This House.
Another jubilee, another batch of boring, uncomfortable duets. But there is an extra kick here, as compared to King's earlier gueststar-studded records: it is rather fun to hear the 80-year old grangrandaddy outsing (nearly always) and outplay (occasionally) most of his guests, including those who had not yet been born when the man was already cutting sides, and who, at this point, are as much «elder statesmen» of popular music as he is, and sometimes more.
I mean, it must have been a pretty cruel joke on King's part to drag Roger Daltrey in the studio: the poor guy sounds completely out of voice, breath, and life-supporting devices trying to outdo his 19-year-older partner on the rough blues verses of 'Never Make Your Move Too Soon', whereas B. B. still delivers those lines almost exactly the same way as he did thirty years earlier. Ditto for Elton John on 'Rock This House', the album's only uptempo number that closes the proceedings on a good-timey retro-Fifties note — but perhaps bringing in Doctor John instead of Elton would have spiced things up in a more amusing manner.
The rest of the duets are not exactly pitiful, but there is nothing on here that would, somehow, confirm that this particular person placed his/her stamp on this particular song for any respectable reason. Most of the people are just wasted — either because, as is often the case, they were only too happy to hide behind the wall of B. B.'s years (if so, why the hell did they join him in the studio at all?), or because, perhaps out of a lack of experience of working with the King, they didn't quite understand what to do and how to do it.
Van Morrison: sings a 12-bar blues tune without any passion at all, perhaps because 12-bar blues is simply not his forté. Billy Gibbons: there is no place for classic ZZ Top irony on a B. B. King song. Eric Clapton: hollow, manneristic soloing on 'Thrill Is Gone', possibly because he is trying to do it King-style — isn't it a little odd, considering that King is playing on the very same track? Sheryl Crow: she can write a good song or two, but crooning the blues? Might as well bring in Madonna. John Mayer: the Big Boring Guitar Hero of our time, adding absolutely nothing to 'Hummingbird' and I am still not sure subtracting how much. Etc. etc.
The only track that might be worth tracking down is the duet with Bobby Bland on 'Funny How Time Slips Away' — unlike most other pairings, the Bland/King collaboration goes back to the mid-Seventies, and the two have a good way of understanding and complementing each other; their «conversation» is simultaneously amusing and touching, justifiedly nostalgic in tone, and does not feel one bit strained.
Everything else does. If it qualifies as a birthday present, it must be one of those «Official Important» presents that so often spoil all the fun at jubilees — you know, getting something very solemn-looking, very expensive, and completely useless. Anybody celebrating his 80th jubilee and still having a recording and performing career is OK in my book at least out of sheer respect (and, while we're at it, King still occasionally smokes and blazes in concert, even if he has to sit rather than stand throughout the whole show); but in this case, it is the man that we want to hear, not his (lack of) interaction with his deliberately or coincidentally wooden partners. I'm sorry, Mr King, but the duets just have to go. Thumbs down.
ONE KIND FAVOR (2008)
1) See That My Grave Is Kept Clean; 2) I Get So Weary; 3) Get These Blues Off Me; 4) How Many More Years; 5) Waiting For Your Call; 6) My Love Is Down; 7) The World Is Gone Wrong; 8) Blues Before Sunrise; 9) Midnight Blues; 10) Backwater Blues; 11) Sitting On Top Of The World; 12) Tomorrow Night.
There is definitely an attempt to find some sort of different edge here; unfortunately, in the long run One Kind Favor still ends up being «just another B. B. King album». Of course, one should never forget that it is «just another B. B. King album recorded at the age of 83» — at this point, each new release from the man is a must-hear, if only as a source of inspiration for all of us low-down quitters like Mick Jagger and Angus Young.
Good news involve producer T-Bone Burnett, who has dedicated much of his life to finding a perfect balance between progressive technology and archaistic atmosphere; one more return of Dr. John, whose piano playing is often enough to make even a turd burst into flowers; and a number of golden oldies that had never before received the B. B. King touch. Bad news are that T-Bone's production style and King's standard idiom do not mesh well together; that most of the extra studio musicians are little more than paid professionals; and that most of the golden oldies are standard 12-bar fare — and do we really need another version of 'Tomorrow Night', what with Reflections released a mere five years earlier?
Granted, the album starts out tremendously well. Blind Lemon's 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean', whose lyrics also lend the album its title, obviously has a lot of relevance for King these days, and even though there is no reason to think that he meant it as a final musical gesture, he clearly sings it testament-style, in a wearier voice than usual. Meanwhile, Burnett surrounds his delivery with dark, swampy atmosphere, with a muffling effect on Jim Keltner's drums and a thin organ membrane that is more felt than heard. Nothing of the kind can be found on any other B. B. King album — this is the finest intro-bait we've had from the man in maybe thirty years or so.
Alas, already on the second track, even though the production values mostly remain the same, the magic starts to dissipate. Had they concentrated on darker, deeper material throughout, One Kind Favor would truly be different. But this is where B. B.'s self-imposed limitations step in: he is such a big-hearted optimist that he can never stay steeped in doom and gloom for too long. Entertainment has been his motto all these years, and what kind of an entertainer would want to spend an entire hour depressing his audiences?
Throughout all of the remaining eleven tracks, Burnett is pretty much helpless. He still puts that echo on the drums, brings the bass high up in the mix to make things run in a jazzier vein, buries Lucille under waves of brass and keyboards — no dice. There is a physical limit to what you can do with the 12-bar form delivered by an 83-year old whose style of playing and guitar tones have not changed all that much ever since they learned how to run electricity through a six-string.
Also, it worries me to say this, but it does seem like King is honestly sounding a little tired and worn down here: the singing is quieter, shakier, and, overall, somewhat less expressive than it had been even three years earlier on the 80th jubilee album. This may be one of the reasons why 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' works so well on the senses — and why all the other songs do not. In this situation, he could perhaps concentrate more on the playing than on the singing, and on the slow mood pieces rather than aggressive mid-tempo blues-rock ('Backwater Blues' and 'Waiting For Your Call', both of them seriously overlong, still work better than something like 'How Many More Years' in this setting). On the other hand, the last time it happened, his idea of a slow mood piece was the sweet lounge sound of Reflections, and that's no salvation either.
What to do, then? Retire? Apparently, that is not going to happen as long as the man is physically capable of doing something to that guitar. All that is left us is sit back and endure: as long as the King refrains from embarrassments (say, a duet with Eminem or a production deal with the Bama Boyz), everything that he records until his demise (currently scheduled for the aftermath of World War III from a bad cold caught on Keith Richards' funeral) is going to be listened to with the proper reverence. As for One Kind Favor, I'd like to give it a thumbs down, but it does have one terrific performance, and in any case, we are way, way past the thumbs stage on here.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1927-1928)
1) Barbecue Blues; 2) Cloudy Sky Blues; 3) Mississippi Heavy Water Blues; 4) Mamma You Don't Suit Me; 5) Brown-Skin Gal; 6) Honey You Don't Know My Mind; 7) Poor Boy A Long Ways From Home; 8) When The Saints Go Marching In; 9) Jesus' Blood Can Make Me Whole; 10) Easy Rider Don't You Deny My Name; 11) Thinkin' Funny Blues; 12) My Mistake Blues; 13) Motherless Child Blues; 14) How Long Pretty Mama; 15) It Won't Be Long Now Pt. 1; 16) It Won't Be Long Now Pt. 2; 17) Crooked Woman Blues; 18) 'Fo Day Creep; 19) Blind Pig Blues; 20) Waycross Georgia Blues; 21) Goin' Up The Country; 22) Chocolate To The Bone; 23) Hurry And Bring It Back Home.
Barbecue Bob broiled barbecues, boiled bouillons, and... uh... brewed bouillabaisse? In between that and other culinary delights, he played guitar and, in stark contrast to Barbecue Bill, Barbecue Tom, Dick, and Harry, got put in history when, through Columbia Records talent scout man Dan Hornsby, he was offered the chance to record some of his playing and singing for the rapidly growing acoustic blues market. Actually, his real name was Robert Hicks, and he wasn't half bad, but it is highly likely that most people bought his records all based on the «singing cook» gimmick. One of the only two photos of the man that we know has him wearing an apron — even though, upon starting to make some real money in the record business, the apron must have been making its reappearance for promo reasons only.
Barbecue Bob is usually lumped in together with the «Piedmont Blues» style, because of his Georgian origins. He wasn't, however, one of the true Piedmont innovators: compared to real fabulous greats who almost seemed to come from nowhere, like Blind Blake, his «flailing» style of playing was much simpler and more traditional. He mostly played the 12-string, and wasn't half bad at sliding (sometimes he manages to «flail» and slide at the same time), but overall, it is no crime to state that he was not a great player, not according to these here ears. But as a representative of one long gone generic kind of sound, he's all right. For all we know, that's just about the way them old Negroes would play this thing in 1897, or even before that, once they got acquainted with the guitar and started playing them like the white folks would play the banjo. So that's gotta count for something.
Bob was much better at singing, though, sounding like a slightly less versatile, but somewhat grizzlier, less explicitly «effeminate» early version of Blind Willie McTell; after a while, his timbre becomes unmistakable, and his feel for the blues easily equates that of the greats of that era. Furthermore, as much as the limited formula did allow, he tried to somehow diversify his played and sung parts — echoes of old folk songs, newer country sounds, and spirituals (a nice pre-Armstrong take on 'When The Saints' included), all ran through his friendly tone that mixes friendliness and pain in just the right proportion.
Two of Bob's better known songs are on this first volume, covering his 1927-28 years: 'Mississippi Heavy Water Blues', commemorating a series of floods so close to everyone's hearts that the song made him into a hitmaker almost overnight, and 'Motherless Child', best known today, perhaps, through Clapton's cover on From The Cradle — for which Eric humbly reproduced, almost note for note, Bob's «simplistic» rolling-droning rhythm, and did a good job at it, but only improved on the original in terms of sound quality. Many of the other titles are recognizable as well, but it is these two that constitute the cornerstone of the barbecue man's legacy, and it will sure harm none to get to know them in their 1927 incarnations.
Especially since the sound quality is quite remarkable; although Paramount was the leading force on the country/Delta blues market during the pre-Depression years, Columbia had the better engineering department, and all of Bob's sides are consistently listenable — whereas, for instance, trying to listen to all of Blind Lemon Jefferson's output in a row is a very serious challenge.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 2 (1928-1929)
1) Mississippi Low-Levee Blues; 2) Ease It To Me Blues; 3) She's Gone Blues; 4) Cold Wave Blues; 5) Beggin' For Love; 6) Bad Time Blues; 7) Meat Man Pete; 8) Dollar Down Blues; 9) It Just Won't Hay; 10) It's Just Too Bad; 11) Good Time Rounder; 12) Honey You're Going Too Fast; 13) Red Hot Mama Papa's Going To Cool You Down; 14) California Blues; 15) It's A Funny Little Thing; 16) Black Skunk Blues; 17) Yo Yo Blues; 18) Trouble Done Bore Me Down; 19) Freeze To Me Mama; 20) Me And My Whiskey; 21) Unnamed Blues.
Bob's second year at Columbia clearly showed that the man wasn't going anywhere special, but it's not as if anyone expected progress. On the contrary, everyone expected, and demanded, nothing but remakes of the old hits; symbolically, the album opens with 'Mississippi Low-Levee Blues', which is simply 'Mississippi Heavy Water Blues' with a new set of lyrics. There are also a couple rewrites of 'Motherless Child' here, and lots of fast dance-blues numbers all set to the same pattern ('It Just Won't Hay' and its clones).
Dirty song of the day: 'Meat Man Pete', of course, in which Bob is all excited to tell us all about "Peter's meat" which is "always fresh" (for some reason, he doesn't do the popular verse which mentions his "boneless ham"). However, it must also be mentioned that Hicks' songs are not all that heavy on dirty double entendres — the barbecue man preferred a cleaner approach.
On the positive side, it seems that the more time Hicks spent in the studio, the more he was getting into his instrument. The simple «flailing» technique is still there all over the place, but generally there is more emphasis on his slide playing, and almost every number, no matter how primitive, has plenty of little flourishes and, sometimes, even counter-melodic lines that show how honestly the cooking bluesman was trying to hold his own territory against giants like Blind Lemon. It is hardly a crime that he never got around to matching Jefferson's creativity. He did beat him in the vocal department, though, in a «technical» manner at least — easily going from growl to falsetto and then to his regular tenor whenever the situation called for it. But not in the «personality» department — his drinking songs, such as 'Me And My Whiskey', do not really betray the soul of a goddamn drinking man.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 3 (1929-1930)
1) She Moves It Just Right; 2) Tellin' It To You; 3) Yo-Yo Blues No. 2; 4) She Shook Her Gin; 5) We Sure Got Hard Times; 6) Twistin' That Stuff; 7) Monkey And The Baboon; 8) Spider And The Fly; 9) Darktown Gambling Pt. 1; 10) Darktown Gambling Pt. 2; 11) Jambooger Blues; 12) It Just Won't Quit; 13) Atlanta Moan; 14) New Mojo Blues; 15) Doin' The Scraunch; 16) I'm On My Way Down Home; 17) Diddle-Da-Diddle; 18) She Looks So Good; 19) She's Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day.
Like most country bluesmen with only their guitar to keep them company, at first Barbecue Bob did not suffer from Depression effects nearly as much as the urban blues queens — apparently, his rate of recording just wobbled a bit, rather than crumble. But he certainly was no Hollywood millionnaire, either, and his 'We Sure Got Hard Times' is one of those symbolic tunes of the era whose names are so prone to becoming clichéd in our minds without remembering where it all comes from. He must have taken some inspiration from Blind Blake, probably, the first country bluesman not afraid to inject some political bite in his lyrics — "Just before election, you was talking about how you was going to vote / And after election was over, your head's down like a billygoat" (ironically, he did not live long enough to see FDR in power).
Other than this landmark, Vol. 3 boasts a couple curious novelty tunes ('Monkey And The Baboon') and a few darker-than-usual numbers like 'Spider And The Fly', as well as a silly two-part «skit» called 'Darktown Gambling', in which Bob plays and sings a tiny bit and then spends something like five minutes quarrelling with his brother Charley Lincoln over a crap game. (Period historians and etnographers ahoy!). In terms of guitar technique or recording quality, there are no changes whatsoever.
Perhaps the biggest individual attraction of Vol. 3, though, are the last four tracks, credited to «The Georgia Cotton Pickers» — a one-time band assembled from Bob, Curley Weaver on second guitar, and newcomer Buddy Moss on harmonica; Buddy would go on to become one of the most important East Coast bluesmen, but here he is just an aspiring sideman learning his craft from the masters of action — Bob and Curley — quite happy to even be allowed to blow his harp quietly in the background. They do Blind Blake ('Diddle-Da-Diddle', an easily recognizable retitling of 'Diddie Wah Diddie'), 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' renamed as 'I'm On My Way Down Home', and a couple other generic blues pieces. If I am correct in my reckoning, it is Curley who plays lead, mostly, and does it far more elegantly than Bob ever could — on the other hand, it is Bob who is responsible for all the vocals, and performs with far more expression than Curley could ever muster on his records. Quid pro quo all over the place.
Sadly, these few recordings by the Pickers in December 1930 were the last for Bob. Hard times caught up with him pretty soon: for the following several months, he was out of work, and then, at the peak of unluckiness, got carried away with influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis on October 21, 1931. It is highly unlikely that he would have gone on to bigger and better things had he stayed alive, so, from a completist-reviewer's cynical-pragmatic point of view, he did good, but from the humanist point of view — well, the best we can do is go on ensuring that the world remembers his best creations, such as 'Motherless Child' etc., for at least a little while longer.
THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 1 (1923-1924)
CD I: 1) Downhearted Blues; 2) Gulf Coast Blues; 3) Aggravatin' Papa; 4) Beale Street Mama; 5) Baby Won't You Please Come Home; 6) Oh! Daddy Blues; 7) 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do; 8) Keeps On A-Rainin' (Papa, He Can't Make No Time); 9) Mama's Got The Blues; 10) Outside Of That; 11) Bleeding Hearted Blues; 12) Lady Luck Blues; 13) Yodling Blues; 14) Midnight Blues; 15) If You Don't, I Know Who Will; 16) Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine; 17) Jailhouse Blues; 18) St. Louis Gal; 19) Sam Jones Blues; CD II: 1) Graveyard Dream Blues; 2) Cemetery Blues; 3) Far Away Blues; 4) I'm Going Back To My Used To Be; 5) Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time; 6) My Sweetie Went Away; 7) Any Woman's Blues; 8) Chicago Bound Blues; 9) Mistreatin' Daddy; 10) Frosty Morning Blues; 11) Haunted House Blues; 12) Eavesdropper's Blues; 13) Easy Come, Easy Go Blues; 14) Sorrowful Blues; 15) Pinchbacks — Take 'Em Away!; 16) Rocking Chair Blues; 17) Ticket Agent, Ease Your Window Down; 18) Bo Weavil Blues; 19) Hateful Blues.
Typically, one's acquaintance with the «urban blues» of the roaring decade begins with Bessie Smith — and, also typically, ends there, because it takes the modern listener a long time to get settled into that creaky, hissy, monotonous, faraway groove, and not everyone can make it at all, much less become interested in exploring that groove even further. Still, it is not very difficult to understand what exactly was it that charmed audiences back then in this kind of music — and what it is that makes the retro-fan share the same sentiments almost a century later.
It is much harder to understand and explain what it is, exactly, that sets Bessie Smith so far apart from all the other innumerable «blues queens» of the day: Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Clara Smith, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace... the list is really endless, and all of them were first-rate entertainers in their own right. And yet, it is not just some arbitrary historian's choice that randomly picked Bessie from this crowd and set her on a particularly impressive pedestal. The fact is that the blues boom of the 1920s did not properly set in until the arrival of Bessie, and, even though she was far from the first blues queen to appear on record (Mamie Smith had her beat by three years at least), it was she that, almost overnight, turned the blues recording business from a modest kingdom into a huge empire — rightfully earning the title of «Empress Of The Blues», under which she was billed throughout most of the decade.
The reason certainly does not lie in the music, or the arrangements. Song-wise, Bessie was recording more or less the same compositions as everyone else — sometimes borrowing songs that had already become hits with her competition, sometimes giving them away, according to the common rules of the trade. As for the accompaniment, it is certainly hard to complain: almost from the beginning, after a brief stint with pianist and (rather ruthless) promo man Clarence Williams, her main partner was Fletcher Henderson, one of the biggest piano men of the decade, whose tireless «flourishing» graces a lot of these tracks and seriously raises the stakes in the beauty department. But still, there is no denying that many blues queens back then got prime backing from dexterous jazz and blues musicians.
Obviously, the public was buying not because it wanted to hear more of Fletcher Henderson, but because it needed all the magic it could get from Bessie herself. So, what was that magic, and can we still perceive it, being so far removed from its time?
The way I see it, Bessie represented the first step on a long emotional journey whose purpose is to free performing art from its performing conventions and to imbue it with realistic emotion. When you listen to the other «queens» of the time, what you get is essentially show-biz. Now do not get me wrong: when you listen to Bessie, what you get is also show-biz. But the first show-biz is show-biz presented as show-biz, whereas Bessie's show-biz is awesomely more life-like. Roughly speaking, she sings it like she means it, while such performers as Mamie Smith or Alberta Hunter would sing it like they were expected to sing it.
This point will become very simple and obvious if, for instance, one listens to Alberta Hunter's 'Downhearted Blues' and Bessie's rendition of the same song — her very first recorded side — in a row. Hunter is cute, elegant, and pleasant; she hits all the right notes, but, essentially, sounds like she is mostly doing it just for the applause. Her 'gee, but it's hard to love someone, when that someone don't love you' certainly does not sound like it is really coming from someone in painful love with someone else. Bessie, ditching the lightweight vaudeville horns, with nothing but Clarence Williams' minimalistic piano behind her back, takes it to a whole different level. It is not just that her voice is deeper and stronger; it is that she really modulates it to fit the lyrics and the general mood, actually putting the blues back into the blues where the blues belong.
Formally, much of this is still «vaudeville» rather than true blues, but emotionally, this is troubled music, and even though Bessie's own troubled times, aside from some tumultuous personal relations, ended pretty soon after she began her recording career, this never impacted her ability to deliver music that people could properly relate to, rather than just use it for parties. Can people still relate to it? Well, take my own case: while I have learned to enjoy female urban blues as such, almost none of it has managed to seriously stick in my mind — and yet, at the same time, 'Downhearted Blues', 'Gulf Coast Blues', 'Baby Won't You Please Come Home', the absolutely powerhouse 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do' (a classic that nearly every bluesman has performed since and not a single one has performed better), 'Lady Luck Blues' — these are just some of the tunes from this first volume of recordings that have struck a deep chord with me.
Keep in mind that I mentioned «first step»: in 1923, «emotional» blues singing was too young yet to include screaming one's head off, going from shrill to hushed in a matter of seconds, or ad-libbing whatever impulse came into your head like crazy. The inexperienced listener should not be expecting a Janis Joplin here, or an Aretha Franklin, or even a Billie Holiday, even though all three were clearly indebted to Bessie, directly or indirectly (and Billie, in particular, used to sing quite a bit of Bessie's material). In essence, this is traditional, gimmick-free singing — but very human, very approachable, and, while we're at it, quite powerful: most of the «strong, independent» women of the more recent eras of pop music really sound like vague, insecure bimbos next to the strength and confidence that Smith exudes on almost every performance.
Obviously, the Complete Recordings series, even for giants like Bessie, are overkill, and she does not always sing with the same level of intensity, not to mention that much of the material just does not have any pre-written hooks to latch on to. There is also a horrendous recording that, for some stupid marketing reason, pairs Bessie with Clara Smith, a decent performer in her own rights — but together they form The Hungry Cat Duo, singing so drastically off-key that the only purpose of it must have been to imply that they should never be put on the same record again.
But this is obligatory nitpicking — when you strive for completism, you should know beforehand that not everything is going to be great. On the positive side, these cannot even be called the formative years: Bessie was just as fantastic on her first records as she was on her last — fresher, in fact, and with an overall higher proportion of truly timeless classics. Only historians need access to all the 38 tracks on here, but regular music lovers who do not have access to at least a dozen have missed a good friend. Thumbs up.
THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 2 (1924-1925)
CD I: 1) Frankie Blues; 2) Moonshine Blues; 3) Louisiana Low Down Blues; 4) Mountain Top Blues; 5) Work House Blues; 6) House Rent Blues; 7) Salt Water Blues; 8) Rainy Weather Blues; 9) Weeping Willow Blues; 10) The Bye Bye Blues; 11) Sing Sing Prison Blues; 12) Follow The Deal On Down; 13) Sinful Blues; 14) Woman's Trouble Blues; 15) Love Me Daddy Blues; 16) Dying Gambler's Blues; 17) The St. Louis Blues; 18) Reckless Blues; 19) Sobbin' Hearted Blues; CD II: 1) Cold In Hand Blues; 2) You've Been A Good Ole Wagon; 3) Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home); 4) The Yellow Dog Blues; 5) Soft Pedal Blues; 6) Dixie Flyer Blues; 7) Nashville Women's Blues; 8) Careless Love Blues; 9) J. C. Holmes Blues; 10) I Ain't Goin' To Play Second Fiddle; 11) He's Gone Blues; 12) Nobody's Blues But Mine; 13) I Ain't Got Nobody; 14) My Man Blues; 15) New Gulf Coast Blues; 16) Florida Bound Blues; 17) At The Christmas Ball; 18) I've Been Mistreated (And I Don't Like It).
The second volume is just as indispensable as the first. It was during this particular period that Smith crashed the last barriers, conquering Detroit and Chicago, teaming up with the hottest players around, gaining the title of «Empress of the Blues» and becoming the most highly paid black performer of her time. If none of this shows on the actual recordings, well, blame it on genre requirements: Bessie was paid, first and foremost, for being unhappy on record, and she honestly earned every cent of that pay. Her backing musicians may not have always been taking this idea of unhappiness too seriously — as evidenced by their occasional cheesy insertion of phrases from Chopin's 'Funeral March' into the playing — but she herself was dedicated to it at every session, no matter what her own private circumstances were at the time.
Two major piece of news are in order. First, starting from the third track of the second disc, Bessie enters the advanced age of electrical recording; some of her contemporaries had to adjust their style in order to sing into the microphone, but Bessie seemed to latch on to the new technique immediately — in fact, celebrating it with her biggest band and her liveliest song so far: 'Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)'. This is pretty much the only example of Bessie's cakewalk that you can hear, but a prime one; her «rocking» numbers, few as they were, shook the floor with more power than any other kind of music at the time, and it is great to hear her singing captured so magnificently with the new recording technology.
Second, the collection includes the several sides Bessie recorded in January 1925 with Louis Armstrong, including the famous 'St. Louis Blues' and the less famous, but, in my opinion, far more subtle and touching 'You've Been A Good Ole Wagon'. The latter is an old vaudeville tune on the unhappy consequences of impotence, but Bessie insists on turning it from an overtly comic number into a tale of personal grief. (Then again, surely it is no laughing matter when the man «done broke down» — if you're going to dump him for that reason, a little sympathy may not hurt).
That said, it has generally been recognized, and I subscribe to the recognition, that Armstrong's backing did not gel ideally with Bessie's singing, or, at least, that these particular tracks are not all that «cornet-important» when compared to songs recorded with Joe Smith, Bessie's regular player (no personal relation, though). Louis is technically perfect as usual, but he may be just a tad too happy with his instrument where Bessie would need a more somber manner of playing. Had they spent more time together, he would probably have adjusted better to her style — but even as it is, we got ourselves a one-of-a-kind memento of two giants together at their respective peaks.
Other than that, there are no big surprises, and, as usual, 37 songs in chronological order make it hard to see the inspired masterpieces from simply solid workmanship, but time has ensured that, eighty years from then, not a single one of them comes across as crappy or tasteless. And it was a good idea to make the final break with 'I've Been Mistreated (And I Don't Like It)', the most openly aggressive and threatening tune out of the bunch — if the last half-dozen tracks made the mistake of lulling you, the last one will punch you in the guts and leave you aching for more.
THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 3 (1925-1928)
CD I: 1) Red Mountain Blues; 2) Golden Rule Blues; 3) Lonesome Desert Blues; 4) Them Has Been Blues; 5) Squeeze Me; 6) What's The Matter Now; 7) I Want Every Bit Of It; 8) Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town; 9) The Gin House Blues; 10) Money Blues; 11) Baby Doll; 12) Hard Driving Papa; 13) Lost Your Head Blues; 14) Hard Time Blues; 15) Honey Man Blues; 16) One And Two Blues; 17) Young Woman's Blues; 18) Preachin' The Blues; 19) Backwater Blues; 20) After You've Gone; 21) Alexander's Ragtime Band; CD II: 1) Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan); 2) There'll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight; 3) Trombone Cholly; 4) Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair; 5) Them's Graveyard Words; 6) Hot Spring Blues; 7) Sweet Mistreater; 8) Lock And Key; 9) Mean Old Bed Bug Blues; 10) Homeless Blues; 11) Looking For My Man Blues; 12) Dyin' By The Hour; 13) Foolish Man Blues; 14) Thinking Blues; 15) Pickpocket Blues; 16) I Used To Be Your Sweet Mama; 17) I'd Rather Be Dead And Buried In My Grave; 18) I'd Rather Be Dead And Buried In My Grave (alt. take).
Heard from the perspective of our utterly spoiled modern-day ears that quickly get tired of repetition, Vol. 3, covering Bessie's years of prime glam and luxury, is somewhat of an intuitive letdown; but from the perspective of contemporary audiences, there is hardly even one small sign here that Ms. Smith might somehow be «losing it». After all, her voice and emotional force are going as strong as ever, and her backing players are still the top of the crop — when you have Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and James P. Johnson all delighted to back the lady, you know her fortunes have not changed much.
But in terms of classic individual performances, Vol. 3 does not add much to what we already know. The first disc is livened up by occasional dance numbers, such as 'Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town' and the energetic performance of the classic 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', where Hawkins, Joe Smith, and Henderson fight it out in the background while Bessie shouts it out as if her own salary drastically depended upon her being able to draw as many neighbours as possible to the virtues of Alexander's Ragtime Band (well, in a way, it was). But the second half is much more subdued, and, to a large extent, dominated by second- and third-rate songs that do not deserve special mention (except for such trivia bits as Bessie being, once in a while, backed by guitar rather than piano, e. g., 'Mean Old Bed Bug Blues' — but, unfortunately, the player is no Lonnie Johnson and no Blind Lemon).
Well-recognized classics would likely include 'The Gin House Blues', the first of Bessie's autobiographical relays of her troubled relations with alcohol; 'After You've Gone', with a big band arrangement and an intentionally epic feel, as Bessie fulfills the relatively easy task of obliterating Marion Harris' original by injecting realism and power into the recording; and the even more anthemic 'Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan)' — no realism here to speak of, because the «Chattanooga gal» hardly ever set foot in the Delta (then again, neither did John Fogerty, and that is no reason to turn down 'Proud Mary' or 'Green River'), however, her goal is not to recreate any kind of swampy atmosphere, but rather to use the lyrics as a general metaphor for the idea of being proud of one's home and homeland, wherever and whatever that is, and she makes it into one of the stateliest performances of her entire career. The final outburst — 'My heart cries out for muddy water!' — is unforgettable.
A minor half-funny, half-sad oddity that also deserves to be singled out is 'Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair', departing from the general blues structure and featuring one of the most repetitive choruses in history, with Bessie repeating 'judge, judge, please Mr. Judge' in the same robotic manner for about thirty times or so, weirdly contrasting with the far more expressive verse melody where she explains that 'I had my knife and went insane, and the rest you ought to know'. Hardly a classic, but definitely a bizarre stand-out in a collection that, for the modern listener at least, threatens to render one of the most impressive blues performers in history less and less impressive with each following track.
THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 4 (1928-1930)
CD I: 1) He's Got Me Goin'; 2) It Won't Be You; 3) Spider Man Blues; 4) Empty Bed Blues (part 1); 5) Empty Bed Blues (part 2); 6) Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out There); 7) Yes Indeed He Do!; 8) Devil's Gonna Git You; 9) You Ought To Be Ashamed; 10) Washwoman's Blues; 11) Slow And Easy Man; 12) Poor Man's Blues; 13) Please Help Me Get Him Out Of My Mind; 14) Me And My Gin; 15) I'm Wild About That Thing; 16) You've Got To Give Me Some; 17) Kitchen Man; 18) I've Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away); 19) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; 20) Take It Right Back ('Cause I Don't Want It Here); CD II: 1) Standin' In The Rain Blues; 2) It Makes My Love Come Down; 3) Wasted Life Blues; 4) Dirty No-Gooder's Blues; 5) Blue Spirit Blues; 6) Worn Out Papa Blues; 7) You Don't Understand; 8) Don't Cry Baby; 9) Keep It To Yourself; 10) New Orleans Hop Scop Blues; 11) See If I'll Care; 12) Baby Have Pity On Me; 13) On Revival Day; 14) Moan, You Moaners; 15) Hustlin' Dan; 16) Black Mountain Blues; 17) In The House Blues; 18) Long Old Road; 19) Blue Blues; 20) Shipwreck.
It is amusing to learn that 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' — a song originally written by Bessie's minor competition Ida Cox, but eventually immortalized by the Empress — was recorded in 1929, immediately bringing on associations with the Wall Street crash and subsequent demise of the blues industry on the whole, and Bessie's in particular. How painfully autobiographical, one might say.
Yet it is twice as amusing to know that the actual recording took place on May 15 of that year — more than five actual months before the beginning of the Depression. As prophetic as the song now sounds, when Bessie put it in the can, it was just another unhappy blues anthem with Ms. Smith, at that moment — not exactly a millionnaire, but certainly pretty well-off, singing "Once I lived the life of a millionnaire..." as if that past tense were spoken in all sincerity. Atmosphere? Unhappy, for sure, but nowhere near miserable: the emphasis is on frustration — Bessie makes herself sound mighty pissed off at having so stupidly squandered her fortunes, with a whiff of threat that echoes Timon of Athens.
I guess she brought it on herself, though — obviously God could not refuse such a fervent plea for bitter misery, and had little choice but to bring down the stock market. The economic history of the States is well observed by the statistics: Bessie cut 18 sides in 1928, 18 sides in 1929, but only 8 in 1930 (and only two in 1931!). Some of these eight sides were real strange, too, like 'On Revival Day' and 'Moan, You Moaners', the first and last pure gospel tracks that Bessie (whose relations with the Lord were, in general, not very amicable) ever did, and she did them well, even though I would not welcome the idea of a whole collection of such tunes; Bessie's powerhouse assault works well in a gospel context, but if, for some reason, one should want a longer, more detailed exposure to the genre, it requires such levels of subtlety as Bessie never possessed (unlike, for instance, Mahalia Jackson).
Nevertheless, let us not forget that all of 1928 and most of 1929 were still part of the roaring years, and there are quite a few tracks here that stand out fairly well, satisfying quite a few different tastes. Hungry for sleazy and salacious? The sprawling, two-part 'Empty Bed Blues', replete with Charlie Green's sexy trombone grunts, features lyrics that would make AC/DC and KISS members nervously blush in the distance ('He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot / When he put in the bacon, it overflowed the pot' — I wonder what Tipper Gore would have to say about that. Then again, with her level of understanding, she'd probably suggest it as the soundtrack for Ready Steady Cook). If that is not enough, how about 'Kitchen Man'? Eddie Lang's Lonnie Johnson-style guitar, sinuously sliding along, is the perfect accompaniment for lines like 'Oh how that boy can open clam, no one else can touch my ham', and she likes his sausage meat, too, if you know what I mean.
If you want serious and troubled, there is 'Me And My Gin', simply an undisputable classic masterpiece; Bessie's 'Stay away from me, 'cause I'm in my sin' transparently shows how the blues is, in fact, true Devil's music a whole decade before the advent of Robert Johnson. And if it does not, certainly 'Blue Spirit Blues' does, as she unfurls a panorama of hellish visions straight from Bald Mountain; a song even more ominously prophetic than 'Nobody...', recorded on October 11 — less than two weeks before the whole world truly went to hell.
If you want strong-willed quasi-feminist anthems, you can go no further than 'Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out There)', where she explicitly states that no man can, or will, use her up financially — and the even more scorching 'I've Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away)', in which the lady protagonist refuses to bail out her good-for-nothing guy because 'I've been saving it up for a long long time, to give it away would be more than a crime'. One may question the judgement, but not the determination.
To sum it up, Vol. 4 seems to pick up the pace that was somewhat slowed down on Vol. 3, and if it does not have the highest ratio of classic-to-filler, it certainly does have the most diverse portfolio. People occasionally complain that, by the time 1930 rolls along, her voice had started showing signs of wearing down, e. g. on such numbers as 'Hustlin' Dan' and 'Black Mountain Blues', but, first of all, I simply do not hear it, and second, even if this is true, it is still impossible: Bessie's voice is of the particular kind that usually stays immune to any troubles, be they smoke, drug, or age-related. The worst she could do was flub a note or two if she came in the studio drunk, but we are not exactly talking opera singers here. She was always in great form.
THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 5 (1931-1933)
CD I: 1) Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl; 2) Safety Mama; 3) Do Your Duty; 4) Gimme A Pigfoot; 5) Take Me For A Buggy Ride; 6) I'm Down In The Dumps; 7) The Yellow Dog Blues; 8) Soft Pedal Blues; 9) Nashville Women's Blues; 10) Careless Love Blues; 11) Muddy Water; 12) St. Louis Blue Soundtrack — Band Intro; 13) Crap Game; 14) St. Louis Blues; CD II: Ruby Smith interviews.
Yes, it would have certainly been an unforgivable mistake on the part of Columbia Records not to end this series of excellent quality catalog repackagings with at least one total rip-off. The last installment in the Bessie Smith saga, just as all the previous ones, is a fully priced 2-CD package, out of which the non-historian really needs a grand total of six songs. Of course, it would have been fairly easy to squeeze those six onto the remaining disc space of Vol. 4 — but would that count as the true raffinated sparkle of Columbia's marketing genius?
Let us see what else we have here. First, a bunch of crappy-sounding outtakes from a 1925 session: five crackling cuts, all of which we have already heard in superior versions on Vol. 2. Just what we need to hear in order to truly comprehend the giant stature of the Empress. Second, three tracks that reproduce, in complete form, the soundtrack to the short film St. Louis Blues, shot in 1929 and featuring Bessie's only preserved live appearance. The footage (which you can, and should, see on Youtube) is obviously priceless, and the semi-live rendition of 'St. Louis Blues' itself, on which Bessie is backed not by Armstrong, but a huge black choir instead, is nice to have on CD, but the six-minute dialog sequence ('Crap Game') is a complete waste of space unless you want to have a crash course in African American Vernacular as spoken in the 1920s (except the sound quality is so awful you would still need subtitles).
Finally, the entire second disc is only indirectly related to Bessie; it is an interview CD, where Bessie's niece-by-marriage, Ruby Smith, recounts her memories of Bessie in a grueling seventy-minute session. Which is fine and dandy, but you might just as well read a book about Bessie rather than spend all this time trying to sort the wheat from the chaff and separate objective fact from biased personal feeling — never for one moment able to understand why exactly does this need to co-exist in one package with Bessie's actual music.
Unfortunately, what with all the ripping-off, the six real songs that make this «Final Chapter» worth owning are all classics, unexpendable for even the casual Bessie lover. Two date from a lonesome super-short session in 1931, four more from a similarly brief stunt in 1933; this is all that Bessie had the opportunity to produce in her last decade, before a complete goodbye to the recording industry and, eventually, a tragic death in a car accident in 1937.
The songs are pure vaudeville, no blues — urban blues was not something the people took to as lightly in the hungry 1930s as they did in the booming 1920s (it is, after all, one thing to listen about someone being miserable when you yourself are reasonably content, but a whole different story when your own misery is comparable). 'Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl' is arguably the dirtiest song Bessie ever did (she also needs a hot dog between her rolls, and other delights too scandalous to mention), yet somehow she manages to transform this pure anthem of lust into a song of soulful mourning, almost as if all the sugar and hot dog references had some further spiritual connotations attached. Accustomed as we are to all the cock rock hits on classic rock radio, it is hardly surprising to see words of love used as a metaphor for sex — but using culinary words as metaphors for sex and meta-metaphors for love, that is something else totally.
The last four songs from 1933 almost play as a mini-musical: Bessie demands of her man that he 'Do Your Duty' (same one as above, apparently), lets it all hang out on 'Gimme A Pigfoot' (and a bottle of beer, even though Prohibition was still in action), after the hangover, gets unusually sentimental ('Take Me For A Buggy Ride'), and, finally, gets dumped by both the guy and whoever else she could possibly be dumped by ('I'm Down In The Dumps'). Everything Bessie ever had is in these four tunes: arrogance, recklessness, sweetness, misery, determination, humour, sadness, the whole palette. Obviously, she had no idea this was going to be her musical testament, but that's how it turned out, and these four tunes are as perfect a swan song for the lady as Abbey Road would be for the Beatles.
ALL THE CLASSIC SIDES 1928-1937 (2004)
Writing on Big Bill from a record-based standpoint is pretty hard: out of all the pre-war / post-war country bluesmen, he was one of the most prolific, and, predictably, this translates into tons and tons and tons of nearly identical performances, differentiated only through their lyrical content (and even then, that lyrical content rarely advances beyond a reshuffling of standard blues clichés, a process that could as well have been machine-generated).
Thus, attempting to review all of Big Bill's output through, say, the Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order series would be quite detrimental to one's health. We are therefore going to speed up that process by relying, instead, on the JSP Records series, which have conveniently packaged everything that the man recorded in between 1928 and 1951 into three cozy boxsets, neatly equipped with minimal, but informative detail on the dates, locations, and participants of Broonzy's sessions.
Immediate warning: unless you are a true old-time blues aficionado, you really do not need any of these boxsets. The first one, in particular, includes a grand total of 129 tracks (and I am not even going to bother reproducing them all here) that, in between themselves, probably contain not more than 20 different melodies (and I am afraid I am being rather generous). Worse, JSP is one of those «honest» completist-targeted labels that only performs the most minimal remastering job on the tracks; and since during his earliest years Big Bill mostly recorded for Paramount, a label notorious for its piss-poor recording equipment (in a similar way and with far more criminal consequences, they butchered most of Blind Lemon Jefferson's recordings), only about a third of these recordings is technically «enjoyable» — the rest crackles way too much even for my non-audiophile ears. For any purposes other than history immersion, you will do better with a compilation that concentrates on the highlights and cleans them up, e. g. Living Era's These Blues Are Doggin' Me (my first experience with Big Bill) or Yazoo's The Young Big Bill Broonzy.
What are these highlights, though? Tough to say. When William Lee Conley Broonzy first got around to recording, the two big markets for the blues — piano-based urban stuff and guitar-based country/Delta stuff — had already been well established, and it took him quite a while to make any impact on either; but when he finally did, he made an impact on both. In a certain way, he synthesized them: even on this first boxset, there are as many connections to Leroy Carr in his performances as there are to Memphis Minnie.
Already his first recordings for Paramount in the late 1920s show an accomplished guitarist with an individual style. But Big Bill's force was not in the jaw-dropping technicality of the playing (typical of Lonnie Johnson and others), nor in the unpredictability of the chords he'd be producing (typical of Blind Lemon): from a layman's point of view, I would describe it as a meticulous approach to the construction of his melodies. If his rags are derivative of Blind Blake's, they are «cleaner» and almost mathematically smoother — 'Guitar Rag' and 'Saturday Night Rub' are classic tracks that drive the form to its utter perfection, and everything that comes afterwards is just a show-off (the way Steve Howe does it with 'The Clap'). And replicating his country-blues shuffles must be one hell of a satisfactory exercise for all scale-practicing guitarists out there — the sonic symmetry of tracks like 'I Can't Be Satisfied' is orgasmic.
There is also the matter of speed and precision: be sure that you get to hear the 1932 Vocalion release of 'How You Want It Done' and not the later re-recordings that simplify the guitar lines. On this particular performance, Big Bill simply machine-guns the song, an approach that I have not heard from any white blues-rocker with the possible exception of AC/DC's rhythm track to 'Baby Please Don't Go', and even there they never tried to work around that particular groove, based around a super-cool flat-picking technique. (Maybe to «refined» white bluesmen like Eric the technique seemed primitive, but one thing's for sure — it kicks far more ass than a whole ton of much more exquisite playing styles).
Most of Big Bill's best stuff from his first decade of recording is found on the first two out of five CDs — generally, Chicago-based recordings with a friend or two sitting in on second guitar and/or bass. As time went by, he became more comfortable with small combos that included a piano player or a little bit of brass backing, and, perversely, the more his recordings sold, the less genuinely interesting they became — much of this stuff is pure lounge entertainment, a bit of ragtime, a bit of swing, all delivered in Big Bill's nice, but utterly non-special, voice and with his guitar technique often sacrificed, melted away in the overall band sound. Depression-era audiences liked that — we don't have to, ever so spoiled by the strange idea that one has always got to emphasize one's strengths rather than humbly shoving them behind one's back. Fortunately, as later recordings would show, the mid-Thirties might have kept down Big Bill's real talents, but they certainly didn't extinguish them.
VOL. 2: 1937-1940 (2005)
There is a damn good reason why JSP hesitated to go on slapping the name All The Classic Sides on Big Bill's second chronological boxset, covering the immediately pre-war years, going with the rather dry academic subtitle Annotated Discography instead — because none of these sides are, in any way, truly classic. Of the three huge sets, the middle one is easily the worst, and it looks like it ain't just my opinion: out of Vol. 2's grand total of 101 tracks, only one ('Just A Dream') made it onto the 26-track career retrospective These Blues Are Doggin' Me. One!
Why? Simple. By 1937, Bill had firmly sunk into a winning formula: playing smooth, steady, a little bit «mannered» mid-tempo blues and some modestly polite boogie-woogie, accompanied with small combos in which he was merely one of the guys. The formula worked, and the records sold, as steadily as they could during all the hard times. People liked the sound, and at one point, legendary promoter John Hammond even got the man to play Carnegie Hall as part of his From Spirituals To Swing shows that introduced America's white elites to black devil music.
But success and recognition somehow came at the expense of sacrificing identity. Listen hard and you will understand that Big Bill is still as accomplished a player as he used to be on these sessions — but listen really hard, or else the guitar will be completely lost behind the other instruments. He almost never solos, frequently sticks to the simplest boogie patterns, and even on those few tracks where his guitar is amplified, it is exceedingly hard to get impressed.
Some time during these years, Broonzy started trying to compensate by writing more original material; but «original material» at the time basically meant writing new lyrics to pre-existing melodies, and in 1940, the man hadn't yet found a proper way to insert little melodic twists that would prompt later generations to re-record and reinterpret his songs. On the contrary, the highlights of this volume are generally songs previously made into hits by other people — such as 'Louise Louise Blues', a 1936 success for Johnny Temple (later expropriated by John Lee Hooker). But some of the lyrics are interesting, like the imaginary alpha-dog contest between Big Bill and his competitor Blind Boy Fuller on 'Jivin' Mr. Fuller Blues'.
Anyway, each one of these 101 tracks is pleasantly listenable, but overall, these are the sagging mid-period years in between Big Bill Broonzy the Dashing, Innovative Guitar Player and Big Bill Broonzy the Grand Maître of the Blues, preparing the grounds for Chicago's electric blues revolution and at the same time immortalizing acoustic blues for European audiences. Refined lovers of the pre-war small blues combo sound will need this (especially since Bill's piano and trumpet-playing pals almost always have their own cool grooves going on), but I agree to stand by those compilers who normally skip this period in their retrospectives.
VOL. 3: THE WAR AND POSTWAR YEARS 1940-1951 (2007)
The last of the three big bulging boxsets is unquestionably the best in overall sound quality, for purely chronological reasons, but also questionably the best overall, or, at least, a great emotional improvement over the steady, unnerving sounds of Vol. 2. Two reasons are at play here.
First, some time around 1941, as if somehow fueled by the dark wartime premonitions, Big Bill became a classic hit songwriter. He certainly never overcame the formula, but somehow he managed to give it a few unique twists that immortalized some of its representatives. That single year yielded such legendary stuff as 'All By Myself', an exceptionally lively, self-confident piece of boogie (with, finally, a well-expressed acoustic solo from the man himself) later appropriated by Fats Domino; 'I Feel So Good', an even more optimistic statement of utter satisfaction, whose macho potential would eventually be fully realized by Muddy Waters; and, of course, 'Key To The Highway', Bill's existentialist masterpiece No. 1, today far more tightly associated with Derek & The Claptonos — but defenders of the faith would almost certainly claim that Bill is way more suited to feeling the lonesome-wanderer message of the song than some clean white middle class boy from Surrey.
These classics still have to be plucked out from a bed of same-sounding, not particularly involving musical rocks. But then along comes war, and from 1942 to 1945 Big Bill, just like everybody else, had serious trouble recording anything, what with the shellac deficit and all. Then, in the immediate post-war years, people needed to be happy, and much of his late 1940s material consists of rough, tough, foot-stomping boogie, occasionally spilling into «jump blues» as such ('Big Bill's Boogie', etc.) — unfortunately, this kind of music was much better done by burly shouters (Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris etc.) or much more seriously instrumentally endowed artists (Amos Milburn, Louis Jordan etc.).
However, it all ends January 4, 1949, on the date of Bill's recording session, credited to «Big Bill Broonzy & His Fat Four». That day, he was still doing the same small-combo boogie that made his fortunes so well-established, but his image so little-distinguishable (although a little bit of change was in the air, with his guitar parts clearly much more prominent than the backing band). Then, exactly one month later, the combo is dropped, and for the rest of his studio recording time in the States, Bill makes a decisive move back into the realm of acoustic-based music — with a heavy injection of traditional folk music into his blues structures, ranging from bluegrass motives to, you know, the Pete Seeger kind of stuff.
That stretch has sometimes been decried as risky (in fact, the liner notes themselves suggest that the move was «foolhardy»), but I cannot think of any other word than «refreshing» after nearly two decades of samey stuff that only yielded one truly impressive pre-war year of successful and influential songwriting. Not only does the man's moving away from boogie give him a chance to come up with some original, quirky chord changes ('Hey, Hey' so impressed Clapton that he would start off his Unplugged concert with the song forty-five years later — played in the exact same manner as Bill does it, no better, no worse), he even allows himself to revisit that style of rapid-fire flat-picking that had once made 'How You Want It Done' so unforgettable, this time, on the old folk standard 'John Henry'.
In all, Vol. 3 runs an impressive gamut — all the way from Bill's songwriting maturation of 1941 to the transformation into the elder statesman of the grassroots commune by 1951, with the slow wisened-up sound of 'Trouble In Mind' wrapping things up. It could, and perhaps should, be said that Broonzy's place in the blues is somewhat overrated simply because he'd managed to swamp his much more talented competition with the sheer size of his output; altogether, these three sets amount to over three hundred sides, out of which I'd be hard-pressed to choose more than a dozen real favourites. (Then there's another, more serious, reason, which will be discussed in the next review). But you could also say the same about B. B. King — and, unlike the latter, Big Bill never recorded anything cringeworthy; never even «sold out» the way that, for instance, Lonnie Johnson did when he switched from technically amazing blues and jazz guitar pieces to smooth, lazy balladeering. There is never a point at which these unending samey-sounding blues and boogie pieces become «insufferable», and for a bundle of three hundred cuts, that's saying something.
SINGS FOLK SONGS (1956)
1) Backwater Blues; 2) This Train; 3) I Don't Want No Woman; 4) Martha; 5) Tell Me Who; 6) Bill Bailey; 7) Big Bill Blues; 8) Goin' Down This Road; 9) Tell Me What Kind Of Man Jesus Is; 10) Alberta; 11) Glory Of Love; 12) Careless Love.
In 1951, the best thing possible happened to Big Bill: as part of a folk music revue, he got signed on a tour to Europe — and thus, almost unintentionally, became the Old World's chief gateway into the world of American blues and folk right until his death in 1958, upon which the crown passed to Muddy Waters. Not the best blues singer, far from the best blues player, not much of a unique innovator, yet with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to impress and inspire thousands of college kids across the Atlantic.
For a period of about five or six years, Big Bill toured back and forth quite extensively, leaving behind lots of recordings, mostly live, that would be useless to review separately, since he never troubled himself to vary his sets all that much. Sings Folk Songs, recorded for Moses Asch' Folkways (later Smithsonian) Records in 1956, is a very typical representative. (It is also the cleanest sounding Broonzy album you'll ever hear). The set mostly consists of various Appalachian-style stuff, mixed with gospel dance music, ballads, and just one or two straightahead blues numbers, and, as nice as it sounds, its chief value is historical — the best way to get your kicks out of it is imagine yourself as a young British student in the early Fifties, sitting in a small audience listening to this strange black dude singing music from the «deep heart» of a strange new world.
Every reviewer and biographer will always point out the obvious fact that Big Bill only played acoustic guitar on those tours, even though his studio recordings from the past decade did not shy away from amplified instrumentation. (All the more reason for European audiences to be stunned when Muddy abruptly took over with the Chicago style). Nor does he ever try to launch into boogie or «hokum blues»; it is well possible that he understood what the audience really wanted — an aura of «rustic holiness» around that music — and that's exactly what he gave, even if his impassioned renditions of folk-spirituals, to him, were just another style of popular entertainment that he fed the «intelligent» public. To each his own.
For some reason, my version of the album omits 'John Henry' (always the high point of the show, allowing him to really stretch out on one of the few «gimmicky» styles of acoustic playing that was available to him), but most regular versions have it, so if you feel like holding this historical document close to your heart, make sure that 'John Henry' is part of the proceedings. I'd also say that he plays one of the tightest and most expressive versions of 'Goin' Down This Road Feelin' Bad' I've ever heard — beats Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead all to hell. Overall, though, I do not feel empowered enough to rave on about how effectively this music transmits all the pain, suffering, hopes, and dreams accumulated in the souls of the Negro people over three hundred years of slavery, but I'll admit that good old Bill sure knew how to make a name — and some decent wages — for himself on the base of that legacy. And he certainly wasn't bad at what he was doing — just a bit overrated by way of lucky promotion breaks.
SHOUT, RATTLE & ROLL (1938-1954; 2005)
Big Joe Turner's firm place in history is that of «The Man They Stole Rock'n'Roll Away From», «they», of course, surmising Bill Haley and then Elvis Presley, both of whom made a bigger hit out of 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' than Big Joe could ever aspire to. Only with creepy black guy music gradually assuming its honored and hallowed place in mainstream musical press, Big Joe's R'n'B hits for Atlantic, in retrospect, eventually garnered the proper accolades.
What remains sometimes unclear to the average eye is that Bog Joe certainly did not start kicking major ass with 'Honey Hush' and 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' in boring 1954 — an impression one could get, subconsciously, if introduced to Big Joe through the retrospective Atlantic boxset, on which he appears around 1951, singing slow, languid, but burly ballads before, all of a sudden, launching into crazyass boogie three years later. In fact, he was already kicking that ass when Elvis was all of a mighty three years old — way back in exciting 1938, when him and his partner, boogie-woogie pianist hellraiser Pete Johnson, were spotted by John Hammond, brought to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, and soon afterwards signed with Vocalion.
This is where the story begins for this 4-CD Proper Records compilation, sadly, out of print now, but one of the finest retrospectives of Big Joe's pre-Atlantic years; these days, an easier buy is JSP Records' All The Classic Hits 1938-1952, which has a little more material (5 CDs instead of 4) but does not, however, incorporate all of Proper's tracks either. My review will be of more concern for the overall pre-Atlantic period, anyway, rather than specifically targeted at any particular CD edition.
It should be noted that, for some reason, Big Joe, as of now, still has not received the «complete-in-chronological-order» treatment from any of the collectors' labels that have nevertheless given that honor to many much lesser artists — go figure — and complete discographies, with little chance of total success, have to be scrambled together from various compilations. Shout, Rattle & Roll, however, contains more than enough material to build up a proper picture of the man, and its omissions will trouble the obstinate fan and the historian far more than the casual listener.
Anyway, the story begins in 1938, and oh boy, what a fine beginning, these early boogie-woogie tracks with just Big Joe belting it out over Pete Johnson's rapid-fire proto-rock'n'roll. The lyrics don't matter — most of the time, they just seem improvised on the spot, extracted and mixed out of a mass-produced set of formulae ("I got a gal, she lives upon the hill..." etc.); what matters is the generated heat, and these two guys could generate plenty of it without even a rhythm session, let alone a big band. 'Roll 'Em Pete' is, of course, one of those pre-war tunes that one must necessarily hear before one dies, and fully deserves the status of «one of the earliest rock'n'roll songs»; but 'Cafe Society Rag', on which Pete is joined by not one, but two other piano giants of the times — Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis — is no less deserving of your attention, even if it's not really rock'n'roll. But who ever proved ragtime cannot rock?
As time went by, Big Joe began preferring to be recorded with bigger bands, and develop a soulful approach in addition to hellraising. To me, he never ever sounds equally convincing in that emploi: I love the big burly guy when he is being the big burly guy, not when he gives us the big burly guy's best impression of a sentimental oaf. But, to his great honor, he never ever mutated into the sentimental oaf completely, not even during the wartime and postwar years when the demand for soul-soothing sap and sentimentality increased so much that crooners and balladeers almost threatened to exterminate the world of popular music altogether.
In addition to cutting one single after another of similar-sounding, but always exciting jump blues, Big Joe had a solid knack of teaming up with all sorts of mega-players — or, rather, the mega-players always liked it when Big Joe came around, because what better stimulus can there be to tighten up one's playing than have it matched with one of the greatest blues shouters in the area? Credits here range from the already mentioned Meade Lux Lewis to Coleman Hawkins (a cheerful version of 'Shake It And Break It', originally made important by the grim Charley Patton); the incomparable Art Tatum (Big Joe dropped by Art's band in 1941 to sing 'Rock Me Mama'); Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew (some cuts from the early 1950s, right before his move to Atlantic), and plenty of others.
Even so, after cavorting with all that jazz nobility, Big Joe still took the time to get together with ol' Pete Johnson occasionally; their two-part tour-de-force on 'Around The Clock' from 1947 is one of the compilation's major highlights, and was later appropriated by Chuck Berry to form the basis of 'Reelin' And Rockin'. Right next to is the slightly cornily staged, but still entertaining 'Battle Of The Blues' between two of the epoch's biggest belters — Big Joe and Wynonie Harris, and as much as I respect Mr. Harris, my sympathies are clearly on Big Joe's side.
Of course, as a singer, Big Joe does not have the required versatility to easily last one through one hundred tracks of material — were it not for the constant rotation of musical whizz kids, at some point the monotonousness would be unbearable. He pretty much sings everything in the same key, tone, and manner, be it blues, ballad, or boogie-woogie: subtlety and modulation be damned. If the public did not clearly catch on to his style in the very beginning, there is little wonder that he couldn't locate the proper market for fifteen years after the fact, not before Ahmet Ertegun started having all the right ideas about correlating him with proper material.
Still, it should be stated very clearly that those fifteen years were not merely a preliminary footnote to the Atlantic period, and that stuff on the level of 'Roll 'Em Pete', 'Around The Clock', and 'Café Society Rag' is every bit as much a cornerstone of XXth century American pop music legacy as 'Shake, Rattle & Roll'. In the light of which, thumbs up despite all the filler; as for the Atlantic period, this will be taken up in the next review, since the Proper Records boxset stops dead in its tracks around 1954, right in the middle of that period.
JOE TURNER/ROCKIN' THE BLUES (1951-1956; 2000)
1) Shake, Rattle & Roll; 2) Flip, Flop & Fly; 3) Feeling Happy; 4) Well, All Right; 5) The Chicken And The Hawk; 6) Boogie Woogie Country Girl; 7) Honey Hush; 8) Corrine, Corrina; 9) Midnight Special; 10) Hide And Seek; 11) Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop; 12) Crawdad Hole; 13) Sweet Sixteen; 14) Chains Of Love; 15) (We're Gonna) Jump For Joy; 16) Teen Age Letter; 17) Love Roller Coaster; 18) Lipstick, Powder And Paint; 19) Morning, Noon And Night; 20) I Need A Girl; 21) Red Sails In The Sunset; 22) Blues In The Night; 23) After A While; 24) World Of Trouble; 25) Trouble In Mind; 26) TV Mama; 27) You Know I Love You; 28) Still In Love.
Again, this album, or, rather, couple of albums on one CD, is a non-album, or, rather a couple of non-albums. Joe Turner is a compilation of Joe's biggest hits from the Atlantic years; Rockin' The Blues, coming out a little bit later, is a compilation of Joe's medium-size hits from the Atlantic years. Together, this 28-song package contains all of Joe Turner from 1951 to 1956 that one really needs to hear — and no one who has not heard it can ever claim to have properly understood the genesis of rock'n'roll.
Fortunately, Big Joe's Atlantic career seems to have easily withstood the test of time, and all of these recordings sound just as spick and span today as they did half a century ago. Pre-war purists may show off all they want, but R'n'B does affect one's nerve centers mighty more effectively when it's driven by a well-oiled boogie-woogie rhythm section with a big and clean drum sound, not to mention ever-improving standards of sound capture that finally allow backing bands to sound just as tight on record as they do in nightclubs.
Funny enough, the man who made his first big impact on the musical world with the proto-rock'n' roll of 'Roll 'Em Pete' started off on Ahmet Ertegun's label at a slow pace: the first two years were mostly dedicated to slow loungey blues and ballads. 'Chains Of Love', 'Sweet Sixteen', 'Still In Love', that sort of thing; well in line with Atlantic's general standards, professionally and cleanly recorded, sung with Big Joe's usual soulful brawn (even his sappiest tunes have a bit of the Neanderthal spirit to them, which makes it so much easier to stomach than Bing Crosby).
The big break comes in 1953 with 'Honey Hush': "Let it roll like a big wheel, in the Georgia cotton fields!". It ain't nothing Big Joe hadn't really done before, including the famous opening line which must have already figured in at least several of his 1940s recordings. All it takes is a few subtle production twists, and a wonderful «Zeitgeist» to carry it along to a success among young audiences, much huger than anything Big Joe could have hoped for in the previous decade.
'Honey Hush', 'Shake, Rattle & Roll', 'Flip, Flop & Fly', 'The Chicken And The Hawk' — they're all the same song, really, also in line with the general style of work of all pre-war artists, but already the sprouts of the new age of popular music are beginning to show, because each of the numbers has a tiny individual angle of its own: a different hook in the chorus, a variation on a brass riff, an unexpected bit of vocalizing (like the famous "Hi-ho Silver!" on 'Honey Hush'). R'n'B changed the face of jump blues, and this means that there will always be a reason to put on a jump blues record (simply because it gives you a different kind of feeling); but the primary goal of jump blues was to let people have a good time, and in terms of good-time-giving, jump blues is to R'n'B what Intel 8088 is to a Pentium.
It must also be said that Big Joe's hit records on Atlantic, after 'Honey Hush', were much less diverse than the material in general. The man did not always rock out to the exact same formula: 'Boogie Woogie Country Girl' and 'Teen Age Letter', for instance, follow entirely different recipés. Then, towards the end of that hit run, he started experimenting with speeding up old folk blues standards: the boogie version of 'Corrine Corrina' came first, the dance avatar of 'Midnight Special' came next, and both just completely chucked away the pain and anguish of the working class and replaced them with mindless good-time party atmosphere. Karl Marx must have been turning over in his grave, but the face of popular music didn't much care for that.
There always remains the issue of whiteys «stealing» this music from Big Joe and his brethren: I think that time will slowly heal this wound, and eventually those billions of miles that separate Big Joe's popularity from Elvis' will accelerate their shrinking, even if they will be doing this for the wrong reason (instead of more people learning about Big Joe, more people will start forgetting about Elvis). Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that Elvis' version of 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' is wilder and crazier than Big Joe's: deeper, louder, speedier, and, above all, the kids really loved it when the stingy aggressiveness of the electric guitar solo ushered out the jazzy smoothness of the saxophone, which, in the 1950s, was still more of an outdated leftover from the swinging 1930s and 1940s than a «progressive» instrument (it took the birth of jazz-rock to redeem it). And, personally, I'll always take the awesome distorted sound of the Burnette brothers' version of 'Honey Hush' over the original...
...which is not to say that the original ain't pretty awesome in its own right. "Come over here, woman, stop all that yakety-yak, don't make me nervous, I'm holding a baseball bat", despite the poor rhyming scheme, still has to rank as one of the most delightfully provocative lines of all time (a duet with Aretha Franklin would probably shorten all the circuits). This is golden stuff, very much of its time and still timeless, and also a perfect introduction to the world of «older» R'n'B for those who are heavily spoiled by modern values and attitudes and need a safe and steady passageway to the vaults. Thumbs up.
THE BOSS OF THE BLUES (1956)
1) Cherry Red; 2) Roll 'Em Pete; 3) I Want A Little Girl; 4) Low Down Dog; 5) Wee Baby Blues; 6) You're Driving Me Crazy; 7) How Long Blues; 8) Morning Glories; 9) St. Louis Blues; 10) Piney Brown Blues.
One of the most easily available original LPs from Big Joe's career, it also explains fairly well why the popularity of the Boss, miraculously surviving into the 1950s, never made it past that decade. His signing up with Atlantic was an accident. It could have been Wynonie Harris, or any out of a dozen other jump blues shouters of the previous decade, all of which had their own charisma, too. Granted, Big Joe was a bit brawnier than most, but it doesn't matter that much: Fortune smiled upon the man by crossing his paths with Ahmet Ertegun, who modernized his sound in a way that the kids could dig. But did he like that modernization, he himself? Possibly, but I see no way he could have loved it. Playing with big jazz bands for fifteen years, then having to dump it all in favour of all these tiny combos with (comparatively) primitive musicianship, I don't really see how he could honestly dig stuff like 'The Chicken And The Hawk' etc. Some of the feelings, at least, must have been akin to grizzled old blues-rockers of the 1960s and 1970s having to adjust their sound to the abysmal electronic values of the 1980s so they could still have record contracts.
It should come as no surprise, then, that, once re-established as a hitmaker, Big Joe would quickly want to profit from it by going all retro. The Boss Of The Blues is only part of the album's title: the subtitle, in honestly equally large letters, reads Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz, and that is exactly what he does. Reunited with old piano pal Pete Johnson and attracting a large crew of professional jazzmen, many of them with Count Basie service time records, Big Joe records a bunch of old standards, all or most of which he'd already cut for Vocalion in the pre-war years. This time, of course, recording quality is much higher, and song lengths have been pumped up — just like before, this isn't Big Joe's show all the time, but unlike before, musicians really get to stretch out like they are supposed to be on a respectable jazz record, not on a boogie single.
The result is a technically excellent, spiritually satisfactory, but, in the end, somewhat hollow piece of lounge jazz nostalgia. Hollow, because 'Roll 'Em Pete', for instance, is given a full arrangement instead of the original piano-only recording, and this allows the real Pete to take it just a bit — just a tiny bit! — easier than before, and no amount of rhythm swing or brass wailing can compensate for the ferocious boogie soul of the original. Clearly, Big Joe is pining for them old times, and if you forget the context, you can almost see the good old times, but if at the height of his new-found success he was still pining for the good old times, clearly, something was not quite right at the time. Yet still a thumbs up for all those who love good old jazz and blues played by respectable masters of the trade. Some of the sax and trumpet solos are mighty damn good.
TEXAS STYLE (1971)
1) Money First; 2) Hide And Seek; 3) I've Got A Pocket Full Of Pencils; 4) Rock Me Baby; 5) Cherry Red; 6) Texas Style; 7) T.V. Mama; 8) T'Ain't Nobody's Business; 9) Morning Glory; 10*) Rock Me Baby (take 1).
Big Joe kept on making records all the way into the 1960s and 1970s; his last LP on Pablo Records came out in 1984, approximately a year before his demise. Most of these albums, however, are tremendously hard to find, and once you do find them, it is tremendously hard to understand what in the world made you look for them in the first place. They weren't popular, they weren't revered, and the only real differences between all of them concern who, where, and when is accompanying Big Joe on this particular date. Because you can always count on Big Joe to sound exactly the same. The guy never lets you down, but after a very short while, it becomes extremely boring to be standing so high up all of the time.
Reviewing the couple dozen or so albums that the man recorded in between 1956 and 1985 would be even more excruciating than an attempt to collect all of them; so here is just one example, the result of an inspired, but hardly phenomenal blues & jazz session in 1971, recently re-released with bonus tracks and all. All of the songs, of course, are old standards; recording quality is not altogether good, with Joe himself kept oddly down in the mix as if the entire band were gathered around one mike except for Joe in a faraway corner.
The players, however, are distinctive. On piano we have Milt Buckner, famous for having once popularized the Hammond organ as well as allegedly inventing «block chords» (although that particular credit goes to at least half a dozen different people depending on one's biases); he takes a few magnificent solos, particularly on 'Nobody's Business', way beyond anything Pete Johnson ever had to offer (although, to be fair, on the speedier numbers Buckner never manages to let his hair down as convincingly as Pete). And on bass, we have Slam Stewart, a guy with a unique style of bowing his instrument and humming along at the same time. Granted, most of the time the resulting sound is indistinguishable from creative farting in your tuba, but the trick is that the guy has no tuba and does not actually fart. For the first couple of times, Slam's gimmick has some fun novelty value — later on, it becomes unbearable (which is probably why not a lot of jazzmen have copied the technique), but, fortunately, he does not do it on every track.
Needless to say that, for 1971, all of this is as abysmally retro as could be; and also, I will probably not be mistaken by much if I say that, for all of those nearly thirty years, Big Joe has not come up with even one semi-original idea. (A couple of songs here are technically «new», but in reality they are just old melodies set to reshuffled lyrics). Still, there is some deeply felt satisfaction that in 1971, he could still sound as reckless and brawny as he did in 1938. All the sadder it is too realize that all of that tenaciousness and energy was essentially wasted on lots of self-repetition and subpar by-the-book recordings. At least this one has Milt Buckner.
COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1935-1941; 1991)
1) Little Leg Woman; 2) Somebody's Been Borrowing That Stuff; 3) Providence Help The Poor People; 4) 49 Highway Blues; 5) My Grey Pony; 6) Stepfather Blues; 7) Baby Please Don't Go; 8) Stack O' Dollars; 9) Wild Cow Blues; 10) Worried Man Blues; 11) I Know You Gonna Miss Me; 12) Rootin' Ground Hog; 13) Brother James; 14) I Won't Be In Hard Luck No More; 15) Crawlin' King Snake; 16) I'm Getting Wild About Her; 17) Peach Orchard Mama; 18) Meet Me Around The Corner; 19) Throw A Boogie Woogie; 20) North Wind Blues; 21) Please Don't Go; 22) Highway 49; 23) Someday Baby; 24) Break 'Em On Down.
What is Big Joe Williams' personal claim to fame? Supposedly there's two of them. First, he was the most notorious bluesman ever to use a one-of-a-kind nine-string guitar, making his sound impossible to replicate for those with impaired craftsman skills. Second, he was allegedly the first artist to record 'Baby Please Don't Go' and 'Crawlin' King Snake' — golden standards of the blues and blues-rock repertoire, especially the former, although, granted, it's a long path of evolution between Big Joe's version and AC/DC's.
Both of these claims to fame may and, perhaps, should be witnessed on this album, which faithfully collects everything the man recorded for the Bluebird label as the man's country was marching through Depression and on to war. Ironically, once you do hear the album, you begin to understand that neither of the claims translates to a musical revelation. The original 'Baby Please Don't Go', backed with a homebrewn fiddle part and wobbly hands-and-feet percussive rhythms, turns out to have been merely one of the innumerable variations on a traditional folk dance tune (the "baby please don't go" verse may have been authored by Joe, but immediately afterwards he launches into the much older "turn your lights down low" sequence), as is 'Crawlin' King Snake', which, as the track listing shows, began its life as 'Rootin' Ground Hog' — if it makes you wonder what in the world made the former popular and the latter unknown, just try imagine Jim Morrison, thirty-five years later, singing "I'm a rootin' ground hog, and I'm a-rootin' both night and day" instead of "I'm the crawlin' king snake, and I rule my den" (actually, Jim used John Lee Hooker's version, which rewrote the original lines completely).
Same thing with the nine string guitar: the extra strings may be making the sound a bit different, but not to the extent of making it completely stand out from the rest, at least, not for the common ear. There are conflicting accounts as to whatever made him do it — such as breaking a peg on a guitar he was unable to replace and modifying it with an additional flange with four pegs; or, even more probable, intentionally tampering with the instrument so that nobody would be tempted to steal it, in the good old cash-hungry Depression days. In any case, it was a curious gimmick that influenced the sound without revolutionizing it.
So what's the big deal at all? The big deal is that Big Joe Williams is probably the most natural predecessor to the dark-devil-blues of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, both of which have covered his songs and, overall, must have been seriously inspired by his attitudes. His playing is not «virtuoso», but he uses his guitar in many ways, never giving a damn about clean melodic lines: his own inspiration must have been Blind Lemon Jefferson, with his well-known disdain for following restrictions. His guitar «rings» and «wails» not any more often than it pounds and prances, going from blues to boogie and back in a jiffy, derailing and confusing the senses.
Lyrically and thematically, Big Joe's songs are a «menace»: not somber-apocalyptic à la Charley Patton or ecstatically-apocalyptic à la Son House, no, Big Joe was way too grounded for that kind of stuff, but he was a dangerous man, and usually sang songs from that point of view. No light entertainment here; this is not music to get cuddly and comfortable to (and, contrary to occasional popular beliefs, far from all original acoustic Delta blues is creepy as hell), although Big Joe's voice is high and clean enough to contribute to the lack of comfort — on that scale, he could never compete with Patton, or with John Lee Hooker, for that matter.
This combination of factors is enough to respect Big Joe for being a separate link in his own rights in the blues chain rather than an insubstantial imitator of somebody else's greatness. Plus, the quality of these Blueb