Plays the Blues for You
Movin' and Groovin' Man
By Bob Weinberg
The latest crop of blues re-releases from our cousins in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, celebrates the blues as it was remade in the clubs of Chicago. Two noteworthy CDs from the collection come from successive generations of Windy City bluesmen, guitarist Melvin Taylor and saxophonist Eddie Shaw.
Taylor, born in 1959, cut his chops as a precocious teen, amazing clubgoers and hardened musicians alike with his smooth and blissful glissing. A child of the Sixties and Seventies, his influences range from Memphis and Chicago masters like B.B. and Buddy to the psychedelic blues of Hendrix and Cream to the soul-funk of Stevie Wonder.
Plays the Blues successfully synthesizes black styles, blending R&B (a Courvoisier and velvet version of "Cadillac Assembly Line"), jazz (the instrumental "Tribute to Wes"), and urban blues (a raunchy "T.V. Mama"), thus escaping a twelve-bar ennui that often threatens to reduce Chi-town blues recordings to cliche (others in Evidence's Chicago collection unfortunately fall victim to the "C'mon-baby-doncha-wanna-go" syndrome).
Taylor displays a fiery command of the fretboard from the opening cut, an original instrumental titled "Talking to Anna Mae, Part 1" that features fits of fleet-fingered frenzy atop slow groovin' bass lines that wander like Moses in the desert. The guitarist possesses cojones to spare, cutting heads with the late Albert King in a more-than-successful cover of Albert's standard "I'll Play the Blues for You," a track fairly throbbing with sensuality, thanks in part to some burbling organ fills courtesy of Florida legend Lucky Peterson. Slow, slinky, seductive, Plays the Blues is about as cool as cool urban blues gets.
The music of Howlin' Wolf could be described as anything but cool on the emotional temperature gauge (a country boy who often performed in overalls, Wolf's wail could melt the ice on Michigan Avenue in mid-December). And one of the reasons Mr. Burnett burned so brightly was his hot 1815 Club band, which included saxman Eddie Shaw.
Out in front of his own band -- which includes Melvin Taylor on lead guitar -- on Movin' and Groovin' Man, Shaw shows the same propensity for clowning and good-times blues as Wolf. The pace never lets up, starting with the raucous honk of Shaw's lusty tenor squonking a minor-key but oh-so-catchy riff on "Highway Bound." His vocals, if not as apocalyptic as the rusty iron pipes of his one-time leader, are dry, well lived in, and listener-friendly -- Shaw winks where Wolf overtly seduced.
A hilarious pre-rap rhythm-speak called "Dunkin' Donut Woman" has the saxophonist deadpanning about a rather large lady with a taste for crullers: "We thought she was hot/Because she had a lot." Not unlike many of his contemporaries, including Wolf himself, Shaw followed the Mississippi north to Chicago, and he sings about his country roots and the girl he left behind in the uptempo romp "Louisiana Blues." A guest appearance by Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, the Texas alto who practically invented the form, is much appreciated on the roadhouse wrecking sax battle "Blues for Tomako."
You can find better blues singers than Shaw, and better blues albums than Movin'and Groovin', but the saxman's warm, generous tone and party-down spirit capture the big heart of the City of Big Shoulders.
Big Fish Ensemble
I Hate Parties
By Greg Baker
It's called American Music. Among its top practitioners are Jonathan Richman, Violent Femmes (who even recorded an ode/example called "American Music"), and American Music Club (whose name sorta says it all). Add to that list this Atlanta band.
Cars, parties, and non-sense-of-place are major themes, but the way in which Big Fish wrestles with such topics can't be what you'd expect. Who could expect this? The title track seems obvious enough, but "I Hate Parties" is really more about self-esteem than antigregariousness: "Glance in the mirror and give myself a vote of no confidence/I wish I'd stayed at home and watched the TV."
But no matter how many lyrical curve balls they throw, no matter how hard the trombones rage in "Floating," no matter that the Indigo Girls sing backup on one song, Big Fish Ensemble is still making American Music at its best. The band and their producer, Rob Gal, understand the essence of this form -- songs so strong they can withstand sparse, honest, unmasked presentations. Sure, there's trumpet and violin and other weird instrumentation, but all of it, every single note, is there in the service of the songwriting.
Maybe the best example of American Music can be found in the album's standout track, another of those classic rock tunes that'll never be played on commercial radio. "Where the Fuckheads Roam" begins tentatively, a steady melody that picks up steam, click tracking and violins like train whistles, drum rolls and cymbal splashes, faster and faster, hummingbirds, loops, breathlessness. The result is pure anthem, contrasted later in the album by "Drank Too Much," which starts out as an apology from a hungover guy to his disapproving darling. Please forgive me, the song character says, I still love you. I was wrong to get so wasted and I apologize. Then he comes to a curve: "I heard from a friend you've been out with Crazy John." The blame shifts until the bowed-head lifts and its teeth are bared. He's accusing her now, and the conclusion is, um, unexpected: "I'm gonna get a brick/And bash his brains in."
You don't need to know Big Fish Ensemble's background to enjoy these savory tunes, but it adds fun to many of the group's lyrical references. In "Amy No" there's a line about "From the New Jersey Turnpike to the north Georgia woods." The band's Paul Schwartz left Binghamton, New York, to attend law school in Athens, Georgia, a route that eventually led to the formation of BFE. Cool, huh?
And the fact that the band was issued a ticket by an Illinois state trooper while on tour goes a little way in explaining the inspiration behind "Bad Driver," a theme song for DUIs everywhere. "The wrong way on the interstate is a hard thing to explain," the tune notes. And while the death or survival of the drunk driver isn't dealt with beyond mention of "a headlight kiss," the last line blends irony and pathos that helps you make the call: "When you make just one mistake no one likes you anymore."
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We've liked Big Fish since their first album, Field Trip, and their Monkees cover on Here No Evil. Maybe that's because they haven't made one mistake yet.
Rid of Me
By Michael Roberts
Producer Steve Albini, who made headlines by claiming that Geffen Records had rejected tracks he'd recorded with Nirvana because they were too assaultive, obviously didn't get the radio-friendly lecture from Island. Rid of Me, the latest from critics' darling Polly Jean Harvey, is so bruising that it makes Dry, Harvey's rather nasty predecessor, seem like Whipped Cream (and Other Delights) by comparison. On the title track, for instance, Harvey quietly croons psycho lyrics (such as "I'll tie your legs/Keep you against my chest/You're not rid of me") against a hushed musical backdrop that is shattered after two minutes by a punk attack loud enough to have your neighbors reaching for earplugs.
Later there's "Man-Size Sextet," in which Harvey's violin and cello reach new levels of atonality, an extraordinarily eccentric cover of "Highway 61 Revisited," and glorious racket pouring out of every groove. There's no denying that this disc is self-congratulatory, and at times the pretense can get more than a bit thick. But Rid of Me is also beautifully, potently uncompromising. Thanks, Steve.