Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2019, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, No Other Love: Midwest Gospel (1965-1978) (Tompkins Square) This label has a fine track record in the documentation of 20th century African-American gospel sounds, with the contents offered in multi-disc sets that have been amongst my favorite releases of the last few decades. However, as cathartic as those sets can be, they don’t pack the emotional wallop of this single LP of recordings uncovered in and around Chicago and compiled by Ramona Stout. The punch is surely musical, as the contents derive from preachers, congregations, family bands, and children’s choirs, but the impact gets intensified by Stout’s accompanying essay, which is frankly some of the best writing I’ve read on the American Experience in a long time. More from me on this one in a few weeks. A

Chet Baker, The Legendary Riverside Albums (Craft) Trumpeter and sometimes singer Chet Baker has long been a divisive figure in the annals of jazz, and this box set exemplifies the reasons why; in a nutshell, these LPs, five in all, with one a collections of outtakes, were cut because the artist was young, good-looking and Caucasian, with the album covers really amplifying those qualities and validating the cliché of Baker as the matinée idol of ’50s jazz. It’s not hard to understand why some would (and still do) take issue with the guy’s success, and we haven’t even mentioned his heroin addiction and the second chances and comebacks he was allowed when others surely were not. These observations may seem odd in relation to an artist’s pick, but it’s all an inextricable part of Baker’s story.

Sometimes that story overshadows the talent. As this collection offers some his strongest and most distinctive recordings, it provides a well-rounded portrait and serves as a solid corrective to those who insist on denying his abilities. (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen To You (A) (available as a standalone reissue for RSD) wasn’t Baker’s first vocal outing, but it’s his best as it emphasizes the unruffled unusualness of his style. Even today, as he sings, one can easily envision the slowly tightening fists of macho jazzbos. Chet Baker in New York (A-) is a record much more suited to their tastes, as it features tenor saxman Johnny Griffin and two thirds of Miles Davis’ famed ’50s rhythm section in bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Pianist Al Haig completes the band.

What the album, and all of the trumpeter’s Riverside material (and beyond), shares with Chet Baker Sings is a sincerity in its approach to standards. Chet (A) is loaded with tunes from the Songbook and has the added value of an interchanging all-star lineup, with Chambers and Jones back along with pianist Bill Evans, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, drummer Connie Kay, flute and tenor sax from a pre-shirtless Herbie Mann, and two cuts with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Everyone sounds sharp throughout, and I prefer this one to Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe (B+), which is a little stuffy in its tribute concept, even as saxophonist Zoot Sims makes the scene. Outtakes and Alternates (A-) is exactly that, with all the songs having featured on previous CD reissues of these LPs. Overall grade; A

The Avengers, “The American In Me” & “Uh Oh” b/w “Cheap Tragedies” (Superior Viaduct) The Avengers are no strangers to this column (nor is the band’s vocalist Penelope Houston, as I enthused over her ’88 solo LP Birdboys in this very space). Heavy-duty fans of this outfit will already be familiar with the Steve Jones-produced tunes on the a-side, as they were originally released in this very sequence on their ’79 self-titled 7-inch EP on White Noise Records. Both cuts underscore the focused, muscular, no-nonsense R&R-based attack on which The Avengers’ reputation rests and additionally illuminate how smart they were topically. For this release, the two cuts on the “White Noise” EP’s flip are replaced by a catchy smoker from the posthumous S/T comp LP, and that works just fine. A

Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, Asalto Navideño (Craft Latino) With this set, Craft Latino’s dive into the seemingly fathoms-deep Fania catalog swings into the holiday spirit, as this is essentially a Christmas album, though it’s not like you have to be under the sway of the season to enjoy it. I mean, if you simply have a hankering for smoking guitar, opener “Introducción” will remedy that need with gusto. Altogether, Asalto Navideño is just a doozy of a salsa album; heavyweight vocalist Lavoe is in engaging form throughout as trombonist Colón and his band brings the heat, the heft, and the finesse in roughly equal measure. Occasionally, one aspect rises to the fore, like the deeply serrated edge of the horns in “La Murga.” A record with no demonstrable faults, which for a Christmas album, is amazing. A

Miles Davis, Miles In Tokyo (Get On Down) I bought this on CD as a pricey import back in the mid-’90s, but have never upgraded to vinyl, specifically because this live set has never been available on wax domestically in the USA. That makes this edition very worthwhile. Those fervent for Miles understand why it’s special; it was 1964, and saxophonist George Coleman had just left Davis’ band, with the young Sam Rivers enlisted as his replacement for a visit to Japan. Rivers’ tenure lasted no longer than this one trip, as his free jazz-inclined soloing clashed with Davis’ well-known distaste for the avant-garde. While a special entry in the oeuvre, the music falls just a smidge shy of the truly spectacular (i.e., it’s not Live at the Plugged Nickel), though there are plenty of fine moments and a lack of jarring transitions. A-

Dr. John, Babylon (Get On Down) When it comes to early Dr. John, it’s his debut Gris Gris that gets the most attention, but this follow-up has its share of qualities, though it’s been pretty scarce, at least in my neck of the woods; after scoring a copy a few decades back, I don’t recall ever seeing it for sale again new or used on wax or CD (that said, I don’t exactly haunt the Dr. John section in the bins). This makes its less celebrated stature understandable and this reissue quite welcome (hey, my copy could use an upgrade). These were the days when Mac Rebennack was known as the Night Tripper, which essentially indicated that he was psychedelically inclined with a side order of voodoo. This one is definitely psych but less mojo-ed out, which might be why they skipped the appellation for this album. B+

Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” b/w “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Traffic Entertainment Group) I’ve previously resisted covering these RSD reissue 78s (which play on standard turntables and are pressed on vinyl, not shellac), but for no particular reason (I will confess that my turntable doesn’t play at the required speed). Now that Traffic is offering one of the masterpieces of American music with its original flip side, I’m finding myself belatedly getting into the spirit of the endeavor. This admittedly has a lot to do with how this reissue of a 1927 disc by the preeminent gospel bluesman (he’s also described as a Guitar Evangelist) essentially encapsulates how the celebrated a-side was heard for decades.

“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was first compiled on LP by Folkways in 1957, and its requisite inclusion in collections of Johnson’s 78s (all cut for Columbia between ’27-’30) and various artists comps surely aided in its rise in stature; it’s part of NASA’s Golden Record, it’s featured on the soundtrack to another masterpiece, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and it delivered an epiphany to guitarist John Fahey. Notably, dogged record collector Fahey was introduced to the song via 78. It was also championed by Fahey’s fellow roots architect Ry Cooder, with his version the final track on his debut album for Reprise in 1970. Sequencing it last points to the gravity of the Johnson’s original; on 78, there is time to reflect, which magnifies the performance’s sheer power. A+

Robert Johnson, “Sweet Home Chicago” b/w “Walkin’ Blues” (Traffic) This RSD 78rpm selection features an artist who’s been rather exhaustively ballyhooed as the direct link between the Mississippi Delta Blues and the late ’60s Anglocentric blues-rock boom. Columbia’s 2CD The Complete Recordings, issued in 1990 as part of the label’s Roots N’ Blues initiative, intensified the focus for a new generation, though subsequent Roots N’ Blues volumes helped to broaden the landscape. However, it’s necessary to relate that Johnson’s abilities were never in question; if King of the Delta Blues Singers is arguable, he’s right up there with Charley Patton and Son House and Skip James. This reissue of a ’37 Vocalion disc offers one of Johnson’s frequently covered tunes, though the flip is more representative of his style. A

Jonathan Fire*eater, Wolf Songs for Lambs (Third Man) So much of the talk surrounding this band focuses on how they were signed as a Next Big Thing but sold crap and then fizzled out, but with a delayed impact upon the eventual explosion of NYC rock activity of the early ’00s. It’s a story that has grown a little stale to me, as this perfectly okay record needs its existence justified not a bit. For me, Jonathan Fire*eater’s use of keyboards places them solidly in a mid-’90s indie rock desire to expand the sonic landscape with a nod back to the ’60s and early ’70s. Think Stones/ Faces, but punkier and decidedly non-retro. At the time, it registered as appealingly not that big of a deal (others were doing it, e.g. Delta ’72, and in a different context, The Make-Up), and that’s how I prefer to remember it. A-

John Linnell, State Songs (Craft) While in high school in the late 1980s I quickly became smitten with the work of They Might Be Giants, specifically the duo’s self-titled first album. But after a few months of heavy rotation and then checking out follow-up Lincoln, I just as rapidly fell into disinterest. Never did the situation change, which is why I didn’t check out this 1999 release by half of TMBG. Doing so now, I certainly hear similarities to Linnell’s main gig, in no small part due to the distinctiveness of his voice. State Songs exudes aspects of TMBG’s brainy quirk, though in working up odes to 15 US states plus a theme for the project, Linnell has avoided tapping into regional stereotypes; e.g., “West Virginia” hints at ’60s garage, with nary a fiddle or banjo in sight. This is admirable. I just wish I dug the tunes more. B-

Donna McGhee, Make It Last Forever (Wewantsounds) Prior to this ’78 disco set Donna McGhee had already amassed a substantial résumé; she started out singing gospel, which should situate her as coming from the soulful rather than the sanitized pop side of the disco street. She was also in the Fatback Band, and after leaving them and hooking up with producer Greg Carmichael and his partner Patrick Adams she recorded with Bumblebee Unlimited, Universal Robot Band, and Phreek; this LP subsequently emerged to initial low sales, likely in part due to its release on Carmichael’s fledgling Red Greg Records. However, the bountiful orgasmic utterances from McGhee in “Do as I Do”’s ten minutes-plus (Make It Last Forever, indeed) ultimately reinforce this as a cult/ u-ground proposition. B+

Nas, Stillmatic (Get On Down) As the title makes crystal clear, the fifth album from Nas was intended as his return to form. 1994’s Illmatic is the record that has solidified his hip-hop legacy, but it’s well-established historically that he lost focus; checking out the releases between that one and this one reinforces the accuracy of this claim. With this said, Stillmatic is quite good but falls considerably short of Nas’ debut, which, face it, was an unrepeatable cornerstone of ’90s hip-hop. But this one’s certainly strong enough that if you love Illmatic, you’ll want to have it around. A big part of Stillmatic’s appeal derives from “Ether,” which is frankly one of the most unrelenting diss tracks I’ve ever heard. The subject is Jay-Z, with Nas’ accusations of misogyny counteracted by his own homophobia. B+

Royal Trux, Quantum Entanglement (Fat Possum) The terse RSD description calls this not a greatest hits but “an epic starting point,” and as it plays that rings true, though don’t confuse it with a career overview, as there is nothing here from before 1992 (“Junkie Nurse” from Untitled is the oldest track included). That means Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema’s most boldly fucked material is absent, with zilch from their 2LP masterwork Twin Infinitives. But that’s alright, as I kinda feel that set should be grappled with as a whole. Instead, the emphasis here is on their later, momentarily major label-funded hard rocking trajectory, which indeed works as a locus of entry, unless you can’t abide hard rocking. But make no mistake, Royal Trux has never been not fucked in some fashion, as this set makes clear. A-

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