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CD Reviews

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Blue Haze: The Songs
of Jimi Hendrix
RUF Records

Blue Haze

   Let me state right off that I love cover songs (one of my slogans is, "Always judge a band by its covers"). Which may seem strange, considering that one of my main standards for judging music is originality. I think it's the particular challenge which cover songs present to an artist: can they do something new, something original, with someone else's material. Which brings me immediately to greatest weakness of this set of blues artists covering Hendrix songs. Jimi Hendrix was one of the most innovative, most original, musicians ever, in any genre. He had no fear of covers himself, but every one he touched, from "Johnny B. Goode" to "All Along the Watchtower", he made his own. In fact, his take on "All Along the Watchtower" is so powerful and distinctive that the song is more associated with him than Bob Dylan, who actually wrote it (it is considered enough of a Hendrix song to be included here).
   This collection demonstrates, by default, just how inventive he was. None of these very talented musicians comes close to producing something I haven't heard before. The closest thing is Walter Trout's echo-drenched, but otherwise clean and pure, take on "The Star Spangled Banner." These are all competent, and usually enjoyable versions of these songs, but they too often sound like someone striving for the highs Hendrix already laid down, rather than reaching their own summits.
   Not surprisingly, the highlights on the disc are two songs which sound almost nothing like Hendrix, where the artists truly make the songs their own. In both cases, one of Hendrix's wildest hard rock freak-outs is turned into slow groove blues: "Purple Haze" as rendered by Friend'n'Fellow, and especially Taj Mahal's soulful take on "All Along The Watchtower." Overall, this is an enjoyable album featuring a number of talented musicians (others include Eric Burdon, Buddy Miles with Double Trouble, Vernon Reid and Michelle Shocked). However, to a great degree it shows that, rather than building on Hendrix's accomplishments, many of today's musicians are still trying to catch up.

G. Murray Thomas


DEKE DICKERSON
AND THE ECCO-FONICS
Rhythm, Rhyme and Truth
HMG/Hightone Records
www.hightone.com

Rhythm, Rhyme and Truth

   Like the housewife who seamlessly manages everyone's schedule that they don't realize how hard she works, the tunes on Deke Dickerson's third album present such flawlessly perfect rockabilly, R&B; and rock and roll offerings that it's very easy to enjoy listening to the CD without acknowledging the incredible amount of work it must take to sound this smooth.
   From the sweetly soothing "Will You Be Mine", to the serious "Don't Push Me Too Far," Dickersons blast from the past vocals fuel skillfully blended instrumentals to make the perfect recipe for easy going, fun music. This is an album to listen to when you want to forget US Sino relations, the Napster crisis, and you phone bill. Low stress simple lyrics and easy-going well produced music can be an amazing treat sometimes.

Carley Archibeque


DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
Everyday
RCA Records

Everyday

   EVERYDAY, the much-anticipated 4th studio album from Dave Matthews Band, finally sees the light of day February 27. The long-overdue album took the fast track to fruition after the band parted ways with longtime producer, Steve Lillywhite, and jumped into bed with super-producer Glen Ballard (of Aerosmith and Alanis fame). The change in direction comes after 5 years, 3 studio albums and 1 live disc with Lillywhite, whose production had become heavy-handed in recent years. The band's carefully crafted reinvention is a decidedly fresh, albeit ultra-commercial disc, slickly produced for mass consumption. EVERYDAY will do well in spite of the forgettable debut single, "I Did It."
   EVERYDAY was written entirely by Matthews and Ballard, the duo going so far as to scrap new favorites like "Bartender," "Grace is Gone" and "Grey Street," which rose to popularity during the Summer 2000 tour, and were slated for the ill-fated Lillywhite release. With 12 songs written and recorded in 6 1/2 weeks, EVERYDAY boasts all new material that has never been road-tested, and foregoes the extended jamming of the band's 'grass' roots. Overall, EVERYDAY has a new approach. The production is crisp and deliberate, and musical elements are used sparingly. If you're hoping for long violin solos from Boyd Tinsley and sax solos from LeRoi Moore, you're going to be disappointed. Even Carter Beauford tames his fusion-style drumming for a less busy groove. The sound is tightly packaged and not unlike the pop rock that has defined the early sound of the 21st century, with a throwback to late 80's arena rock.
   Funky songs like "So Right" and "What You Are" should perform well on the Top 10, the latter a tirade-of-a-song that has all the potential of becoming a powerhouse-of-a-live-anthem. Definitive touches like the tricky time signatures of "Sleep to Dream Her" and "Fool to Think" keep the album interesting. Wrenching out clear strong lyrics ("If I had it all, you know I'd fuck it up"), Dave triumphs vocally as well. With his now-trademark gravelly voice, unusual phrasing and soaring choruses, his ever-developing style has make him one of the more distinctive vocalists of his generation.
   The term 'all new material' is a debatable one; listen for "#36" as the backbone to the title track, "Everyday," while the first few chords of "Angel" recall a one-time live intro to "Jimi Thing." And note the painful wailing chorus from "Little Thing" woven into the otherwise jazzy, syncopated "Dreams of Our Fathers," creating a strange counterpoint to its clever, rhythmic core. Some of that stuff is awfully familiar.
   Bottom line: EVERYDAY doesn't suck. "The Space Between," the tender, ethereal second single, would have made a stronger debut, but hey, no one's perfect. While nothing has paralleled the 'magic' of 1994's UNDER THE TABLE AND DREAMING, EVERYDAY comes the closest yet. Regardless of album sales and charts, the best barometer of EVERYDAY's success will be how well these songs translate to the live show, and how well they evolve over time.

Brett Davidson


GEOFF MULDAUR
Password
High Tone Records
www.hightone.com

Password

   Okay, I may not be the best person to review this record. Frankly, I like my music a little bit livelier. It took me a number of tries before I even managed to listen all the way through. Not that it's hard to listen to, it's almost too easy; it's just a very mellow record. And I had to be in a very mellow mood to give it the listen it deserved. When I did, I found a CD full of delicate versions of old blues, folk and gospel, sensitively sung by Mr. Muldaur, backed up with equal finesse by musicians such as David Lindley, Dave Alvin, the McGarrigle Sisters and John Sebastian. Beneath the soft veneer lay a variety of textures and styles, and a heartfelt delivery.
   Still, and this, I realize is sacrilege for a record in which the artist has obviously carefully chosen the arrangements and style for each tune, I keep hearing, and wishing for, more rousing versions of these same songs. Many of them, to my ear, demanded a chorus of performers, anything from a campfire sing-along to a full gospel choir, but something more than was provided here. But that's just my taste interfering with my appreciation of what was done.
   As I said, I'm probably the wrong person to review this one.

G. Murray Thomas


GEORGE BENSON
The George Benson Anthology
Warner Archives/Rhino Records
www.rhino.com

George Benson Anthology

   Thank the good Lord for the term "crossover artist." In the course of researching for this review, I found that George Benson's work pops up (no pun intended) under numerous categories: Street Corner Doo Wop, R&B;, Pop, Contemporary Jazz, Funk, NAC/Smooth Jazz, Quiet Storm, Slow Jams, Soul, Old School, Crossover Jazz, Jazz Pop, Hard Bob, Soul Jazz--to name a few. George Benson's career longevity is as much driven by his versatility of style as his mastery of his instrument. His career spanning 48 years, Benson has had plenty of time to bridge numerous musical styles and build a few bridges of his own, and jazz, pop, and R&B; are all the richer for it. Several critics argue a strong case that he singlehandedly created the NAC/Smooth Jazz genre that now comfortably embraces the likes of Sade (on the sublime end of the spectrum) and Kenny G (on the ridiculous end of any spectrum). Certainly after the instrumental "Breezin'" was released in 1976, easy listening/Muzak stations developed hipper, more up tempo playlists.
   Arguably one of history's greatest jazz guitarists, Benson finds his way into Retro Hell because of his impressive stream of R&B; hits from the mid to late '70s. Much in the way Louie Armstrong and Nat King Cole are best and most widely remembered for songs they sang rather than the distinguished mastery of their instruments, George Benson is best remembered for his quicksilver tenor vocals. What separates Benson from Satchmo and Cole is the fact that his agile singing arises directly from his lissome fretwork. Thus, it is an irony that guitar-style scat singing, not the guitar, made George Benson a chart topping superstar (eleven hits in the top 30, all told), blazing trails for such singers as Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin. However, his lasting contribution to American music is the manner in which he innovated jazz guitar (beginning with the creation of his first electric guitar--a $20 design of Benson's own that his stepfather Frankensteined out of household odds 'n' ends when Benson will still just a teenager). Well . . . that and the fact that he didn't record one of those silly "Duets" with what amounted to a cardboard cutout of Sinatra in the early '90s.
   The George Benson Anthology offers 31 savory cuts of Benson's finest work, vocal and instrumental, on a two-disk set. Benson's mainstream fans couldn't ask for a tastier collection-all of his big hits are present and accounted for: "This Masquerade" (1976's Grammy for "Record of the Year" and a song noteworthy for the fact that it was recorded in one take), the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night," the live remake of The Drifters' "On Broadway," (used to staggeringly brilliant effect by the late Bob Fosse for the audition number that opens the film "All That Jazz"), "Love Ballad" (a superb showcase of Benson's highly danceable, kickass scatting), along with the easy-listenin' "Breezin'." Hey, has anyone noticed how much "Turn Your Love Around" sounds a lot like a slice of Toto from the late '70s? Well, perhaps that's because Toto's Steve Lukather is one of the three credited songwriters (go Grant Lancers, Steve!). In his duet with Aretha Franklin, "Love All the Hurt Away," Benson wraps his voice around hers so capably that not only does she not blow him away on dynamics, but he also coaxes from her the gauzy tenderness she exhibited in "Day Dreaming" and "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)."

review continued at the top of the next column



Benson continued...

   For jazz fans in general and for those Benson pop and R&B; fans who want the well-rounded experience, the early tracks highlight the extent to which Benson has transcended popular music genres, cultivated such a distinctive signature guitar sound, and stayed ever fluid and flexible across four decades of rapidly evolving tastes. Check out the cool, tangy bop of 1964's "Shadow Dancers" from Benson's tenure with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet. Dig the George Benson Quartet's snazzy renditions of Marvin Gaye's Motown topper "Ain't That Peculiar" and "A Foggy Day" by the Brothers Gershwin, both circa 1966. An amusing jam titled "Ready and Able" seems an appropriate number to represent an album titled "The George Benson Cookbook," featuring great short order solo work by Ron Cuber on baritone sax and Lonnie Smith on organ. There are sly covers of "What's New," "Chattanooga Choo Choo" (which sounds like Booker T. and the MGs killing time on Track 29) and a surprising, Spanish-textured "White Rabbit" (yes, that one about feeding your head) with such notables as Herbie Hancock on the ivories and Hubie Laws jacking up the rates on the utilities. Laws returns for an excellent, lush pass by "Summertime" (with, egad!, Steve Gadd on the drums!). Benson's singing on "Summertime" is one of the finest interpretations you will ever hear of this achingly lovely standard, comparable in daring to Billy Stewart's 1966 interpretation, yet the more sublime by far. Throughout this section of covers, what keeps these standards from sounding like retreads are respectful attention to what made the originals memorable, playful approaches to the instrumentation, and Benson's unsurpassed improvisational skills, which take the familiar melodies in unfamiliar (but never self-indulgent) directions. About the only song I don't like from this collection is "The Greatest Love," which suffers not from any fault of Benson's (he could make the goddamn "Safety Dance" sound like a musical milestone), but because it just sucks as a song.
   Benson has describes his guitar technique (and, it follows, his vocal technique) as a "bouncing off" from the other musicians' lines. This likely explains not only the tightness of his ensembles (he is, in fact, the suture, but we never see the seams), it also reveals why his singing is so, well, purely musical. He serves the lyrics of his songs well (listen, listen, listen to "This Masquerade" if you doubt me), but he serves the songs just as capably when his voice becomes the familiar of his guitarwork. Singer, guitarist, handsome as all get-out (he looks about 20 years younger than his actual age of 58), he is a national treasure, and this CD collection is a treasure trove.

   Some interesting George Benson facts:

1) Vindication is sweet: The first time Benson attempted to sing along with his guitar, everyone in the studio booed. Benson went on to win Grammies for "On Broadway (Best R&B; Vocal Performance, Male, 1978), "Give Me The Night" (Best R&B; Vocal Performance, Male, 1980), and "Moody's Mood" (Best Jazz Vocal Performance, 1980).
2) Benson is an autodidact on the guitar. (Look that one up yourself.)
3) As a little boy, George's hands were too small to play his stepfather's electric guitar, so he played a ukelele he fashioned out of a cardboard box.
4) Cutting his first single in 1953, George wound up with a real hustler for his first manager--a 19 year old kid named Eugene Landy. Their association was short-lived, and Landy went on to greater notoriety as the Svengali-like psychologist who puppeteered poor Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
5) George Benson received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996.
6) That's Doctor Benson to y'all. George Benson received his honorary doctorate in music from the Berklee College of Music in 1990, no thanks to Eugene Landy, who kept young George out of school too much during their brief partnership.
   The George Benson Anthology includes a photo-packed 45-page booklet, with outstanding liner notes by A. Scott Galloway. For further information, I suggest you try breezin' to his official site at www.georgebenson.com.

Amélie Frank


(for more retro reviews, visit AMÉLIE'S RETRO HELL)

 

MARK OLSON & THE ORIGINAL
HARMONY RIDGE CREEKDIPPERS
My Own Jo Ellen
Hightone Records
www.hightone.com

My Own Jo Ellen

   This is updated roots music. The songs all sound like they've been sung for generations, passed down through the dry desert history. The Creekdippers, a loose collection of musicians anchored by Olson, his wife Victoria Williams, and Mike "Razz" Russell, play a timeless form of folk-blues, which still sounds modern. At times they reminded me of Neil Young, specifically in the expert balance between electric and acoustic guitar work. But they really don't sound like anyone in particular, or maybe they sound like everyone.
   Lyrically, the balancing act continues. Many of the songs deal with such modern topics as nuclear waste, developer's land grabs and the California Aqueduct. But these still continue the roots music tradition of dealing with the eternal struggle between the dispossessed and the powerful. On others, they continue the universal topic of the individual longing for transcendence from all levels of earthly struggle, whether through spiritual salvation or simple love and friendship.
   My Own Jo Ellen creates wonderful new songs which sound like they've been around forever.

G. Murray Thomas


TAYLOR MALI
Poems From the Like Free Zone
Words Worth Ink

   Taylor Mali proves that poetry can be both entertaining and meaningful. Mali is a consummate entertainer. His poems are often little stories, humorous and easy to follow, dealing with subjects we can all relate to (such as love and learning and learning love). But as any comedian knows, the delivery is as important as the punchline, and Mali knows how to deliver his poems. He puts every inflection of his voice to use (this is especially showcased in the opening track, "Totally Like Whatever"). He is also a master of timing, utilizing brief pauses to great effect, not just for humor, but to illuminate the meanings of his poems.
   But don't let this talk about comedy give you the wrong idea. Mali is not one of those poets who strings some one-liners together and calls it a poem. His writing is about much more than the humor. Mali makes his living as a teacher, and that experience provides fodder for most of the work here. He writes about the challenges and rewards of teaching. In "What Teachers Make" he is challenged by a lawyer acquaintance, "Be honest, Taylor, what do you make?" and, after outlining many aspects of his job, concludes, "I make a difference./ What about you?" Mali is an optimist, and does believe that he can change the world "one eighth grader at a time" ("Like Lilly Like Wilson"). Teaching is not all of Mali's world, however. He also writes movingly about love ("Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog" and "Playground Love") and loss ("My Mother's Ponytail").
   My one complaint with the album is, having seen Mali's power on stage, I wish he had recorded it live. Audience reaction would have added a great extra punch to many of these pieces (and trust me, he gets audience reaction). Except perhaps then it would have sounded too much like a comedy album.

G. Murray Thomas


PUPPETS OF CASTRO
Andrew Lorand & Matthew Niblock
Thrash Records

 

Puppets of Castro

   Taken individually, each song on Andrew Lorand's and Matthew Niblock's odd collaborative album, PUPPETS OF CASTRO, is a perfectly acceptable little pop ditty. Some of them, like "Mr. Smith," "Planet" and "Piles of Leaves" are truly exceptional, and "I'd Do Anything" is a lovely--and radio-friendly--number. Unfortunately, all these great songs feel like they all belong on different albums. There's something truly jarring about going from the truly haunting "Mr. Smith," with Niblock's gospelesque vocals and scathing dismissal of religious indoctrination, into "Weight of the World," where Lorand's quirky singing style and unnervingly peppy instrumentation is reminiscent of They Might Be Giants. Don't get me wrong. I LIKE They Might Be Giants, but it's a difficult transition. It takes a few listens to get a handle on this album's idiosyncrasies. In the plus column, Niblock allows himself to explore the more Country & Western facets of his singing voice, and comes up with a dry whiskey tone that could make Hank Williams, Sr. jealous. Also, taken on its own, Lorand's lyrics on both "Girls Like That" and "Maria" manage to attain hysterical and heartbreaking in one fell swoop. On the negative, I miss the depth and texture of Niblock's lyrics from his work with "the Clear," and find it amusing that the most subtly written of the songs here is "Mr. Smith," the only one he wrote the lyrics to alone. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable album, but if there's one significant flaw in this album, it's that it collects two obviously talented singer/songwriters and backs them with some fabulously talented musicians (such as Casey Arrillaga and the amazing Kathryn Schorr) and then aspires to little more than poppiness. If there's any redemption here, it's that they do pop very, very well.

Victor D. Infante


REV. BILLY C. WRITZ
The Best of the Writz
15 Years on the Road with
a 77" Pianist
Hightone Records


   Mere words cannot describe the silliness that is Rev. Billy C. Writz. I remember as an adolescent collecting comedy albums that combined music, satire and rude sound effects to create an escape from the relentlessly boring routine of life. Well, here is a collection of stuff I would have killed to lay my hands on as a teenager and find equally funny today. I must admit some of the songs, like "Roberta" a love song/lament about a failing relationship with a really overweight woman ("that was the biggest mistake I made the day I wrapped my skinny legs around your big fat butt"), make my PC antenna begin to quiver. However, most of the humor is so over the top that you can only consider it tongue in cheek and move on.
   Aside from funny song tracks there are radio interviews, live show song introductions so funny you don't need the song and melodies put together like fake commercials. My favorite was one called, "Baby Got Dot," which had a chorus of Indian (from India) singing to the tune of "Who Let the Dogs Out" with the words, "Who let the sacred cows out." Politics are also wielded with the grace of a wounded sacred cow on "Right Wing Round Up," a squared dance tune that starts, "Circle to the right, especially if your rich and white," and ends, "now all join hands and block the clinic." Also worth note is his holiday broadcast about the deep-south called, "Christmas in the Pecker Woods."
   There is just not enough light-hearted humor in the world anymore and it seems that everyone expects a little too much philosophy in humor, which is just another way of being serious. Rev. Wirtz seems to have decided to say "to hell with unoffensive material! to hell with politically correct standards! let' just be funny," And I say go!

Carlye Archibeque




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