Al's Not Well

Most bands, even the great ones, have about three songs on which all their tunes are modeled. Just listen to the entire Nirvana catalogue. Some bands work with even less: The Ramones have two songs -- a fast one, and a faster one. During the course of an Al's Not Well set -- or, for that matter, on the band's debut CD Glitter -- you might find yourself wondering if you didn't just hear the same song a few minutes earlier. Certain heavy percussive lines, swirling guitar riffs, and clever vocal harmonies are motifs. There seem to be a couple of songs with interchangeable parts that they can mix and match, reverse, slow down, and speed up. But they're a good couple of songs: Check out "Dearest Friend," "Bliss," "Chemical Imbalance," and "So Blue."

-- Georgina Cardenas

Teena Marie
Lovergirl: The Teena Marie Story

Teena Marie is a woman who writes, arranges, and produces her own material; a woman who, like her idol Marvin Gaye, contributes soulful playing on all instruments except horns and strings (which she often arranges). Her genius is brilliantly illuminated on "Shadow Boxing," the 1983 album track that divides this collection in two.

Start with the concept of shadowboxing. "In the dark." But in the dark there are no shadows. So Teena Marie prods the listener's imagination from every angle until you know just how she felt on that fevered night, a night of raw sex and pure love, a time so special she must struggle to communicate the depth of her feelings ("Do I have to break it down? I need to break it down; I love you, I love you, I love you"). Her singing slides from a whisper to a scream and back again as acoustic guitar and strings eventually give way to a harshly beautiful electric guitar solo. Toward the end she breaks it all down again in Portuguese, answers herself in English, and seems ready to talk in tongues at the fade.

The end result is a stinging rebuke to everyone who separates sex and love, as Teena Marie gives you the details ("I'm coming, I'm going, I'm swimming, I'm flowing") without the slightest self-consciousness, without even the hint of a leer. Is she singing to herself, to her lover, or face-to-face to you? The answer seems to be all three, as she pulls you into the whirl of a musical menage a trois where you feel everything intensely but all you can see are shadows in the dark.

-- Lee Ballinger

Lefty Frizzell
Look What Thoughts Can Do: The Essential Lefty Frizzell

Lefty Frizzell
That's The Way Love Goes: The Final Recordings of Lefty Frizzell
(Varese Vintage)

Daniel Cooper's fine Lefty Frizzell biography claims, right there in the title, that Lefty is country music's greatest singer. After listening to these two new Frizzell retrospectives, I can easily hear why someone might want to make such an argument. Lefty sang in an endearing, earnest style that could be flowery and plainspoken all at once. His sweet voice would dip down, then swoop up, sliding all around the ends of lines, and his flurries of fragile notes were occasionally reminiscent of quiet yodels. Over the years, his melismatic approach has become the stock-in-trade for a long line of great country singers -- you can hear Lefty in everyone from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson to John Anderson and George Strait -- but when Lefty first applied it to his 1950 Dallas, Texas, recording of "I Love You a Thousand Ways," it set the woods on fire, so to speak. Certainly the post-Hank country world has not seen a more influential singer than Lefty Frizzell.

But arguing that ol' Lefty was country's "greatest" singer seems something of a stretch. Which is why, perhaps, Cooper's book -- The Honky Tonk Life of Country Music's Greatest Singer -- never actually tries to make the case; the title is just the fan in him talking. Surely Frizzell contemporaries such as Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Ira Louvin, and George Jones were every bit as good, and numerous country singers since then (Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, Haggard, even Strait) would be equally smart bets. To this fan's ears, Jones, who clearly fashioned his own note-twisting style with liberal touches of Lefty in mind, simply does a better job with that singer's innovations than Frizzell, who infrequently pushed the approach into gimmickry.

Look What Thoughts Can Do does a good job of making Lefty's case. It also makes clear, however, the argument's weaknesses. The two-disc set covers Frizzell's career from 1950 to 1964, but 23 of the 34 singles here were recorded between 1950 and 1954, and more than half of those were recorded in the first two whirlwind years of his career -- when he was a serious chart challenger to Hank himself. That breakdown certainly puts the emphasis where it should be, but it also points out just how shallow the Frizzell catalogue really is. What there is of it, though, is often stunning. Listening to Lefty's delicate version of Jimmy Rodgers's "Travellin' Blues," his own exuberant "Shine, Shave, Shower," his eerie and now iconic "Long Black Veil," the weary fatalism of the title track, and more than several others here will persuade almost anyone to be a Frizzell fan.

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