Rotations 37

Maggie Estep
No More Mr. Nice Girl
(NuYo Records)
Concrete Blonde
Still in Hollywood
(IRS Records)
Luscious Jackson
Natural Ingredients
(ERG Records)

I have a tendency to annoy politically correct people by referring to a certain subset of music, unironically, as chick music. While it may not be the worst thing in the world to annoy a politically correct person -- while it may in fact engender one of the most gratifying feelings in the world to annoy a politically correct person -- the definition probably occasions some clarification.

Chick music is noise that predicts whining, shuns thought in favor of emotion, and wouldn't be caught dead dealing in ambiguity. It is earnest to the point of maudlin. A squalling voice (or two) and a folkie guitar are generally present. Rhythm is not. Joan Baez leaps to mind, along with the Indigo Girls, and some of Melissa Etheridge's goopier works.

Maggie Estep's new album is most assuredly not chick music. It is wicked poetry disguised as urban storytelling, backed by headbanging noise rock and spiced with plenty of well-advised cusses. Estep mostly just talks in her dumpy Jersey accent, though she sings beautifully on the haunting "Even If."

What does she talk about? Panty stains. Sex. The crackhead who hassles her on the way to the grocery store. Getting her head shaved and taking a job as a stripper. You know, the usual suspects. Her sense of comic timing is devastating, and she has absolutely no interest in rhyming, God bless her.

Driven to near madness by the well-shaped ass of "The Stupid Jerk I'm Obsessed With," Estep vows, "I'm just gonna go home and overdose on aspirin and nutmeg, sit in the bathtub, and read the Executioner's Song!"

Chick music makes me wanna do the same thing.
Estep's attitude reminds me a lot of Johnette Napalitano, who has spent the past decade as the front woman of the bracing -- and now officially defunct -- Los Angeles trio Concrete Blonde. Still in Hollywood is plainly an attempt to cash in on the band's dissolution, though it is nowhere near as shoddy as most postmortems.

Most of the sixteen cuts are live, thankfully, with a bunch of rarities and B-sides thrown in. The styles range from thrash to bluegrass, and pretty much everything whups ass, from the Hendrix cover "Little Wing" to the gut-twisting "Tomorrow Wendy." There aren't a whole lot of bands that come together with the melodic resonance and unflinching anger of the Blondes, and this collection goes to show just how great a loss their breakup is.

As for Luscious Jackson, if somebody tried to sell me an album billed as four white girls attempting melodic hip-hop, I'd be awful leery. Natural Ingredients actually works, and quite well. Beats the shit out a Go-Go's retrospective, anyway. Chick it out.

By Steven Almond

Sonny Boy Williamson
Goin' in Your Direction

Yet another incredibly significant and seriously jukin' re-release from the Trumpet vaults, courtesy of the folks at Alligator. Trumpet was a short-lived blues/R&B label run by Lillian McMurry and her husband Willard, out of their furniture/record store in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s. Fascinating liner notes by producer Marc Ryan detail the label's history as well as the McMurrys' tempestuous relationship with their biggest star: Sonny Boy Williamson.

Williamson (a.k.a., Rice Miller) was a true bluesman, or, as they say, he lived the life, brawling, drinking, rambling, gambling, living beyond his (and the McMurrys') means, even stealing his moniker from one of the most popular blues stars of the time, John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson. He was also a genius with a harmonica stuck in his gums, as these fifteen tracks demonstrate, and as the world would learn when the McMurrys sold his contract and he went on to record for bigger labels, like Chess.

Nascent R&B, such as the whimsical "From the Bottom" (with Sonny Boy's protege B.B. King on guitar -- "Where's my harp blower?" B. cracks at the beginning after Williamson flubs his cue) and the excellent "I Ain't Beggin' Nobody" share space with deep Delta blues such as the chilling "No Nights by Myself" and "Empty Bedroom." One of Sonny Boy's signature tunes, "She Brought Life Back to the Dead," is included in an alternate, slower-than-the-big-hit take, and instrumentals such as "Boppin' With Sonny" and "Sonny's Rhythm" show the harpman's increasing sophistication, although they're still played with juke-joint ferocity: It's the ultimate good-time party music. In addition to Williamson's nonpareil harmonica and distinctive high-nasal vocals, there's also some nifty band work from piano man Willie Love, guitarists Joe Willie Wilkins and James Williams, and bassman/broom sweeper (instead of brush drums, Neil Young used it on the song "Harvest Moon") Cliff Givens.

Although somewhat superfluous, tracks by Arthur Big Boy Crudup and Bobo "Slim" Thomas featuring Williamson on harp are also included on Direction. Crudup's two songs are fine if crude reinterpretations of songs performed better by other artists, but Thomas's "Catfish Blues" (originally recorded by Robert Petway) is a revelation, the evocative vocals and buzzing slide giving genuine feeling to this Delta classic.

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