Ted Hawkins
The Ted Hawkins Suffer No More

Ted Hawkins
The Final Tour

In many ways the late Ted Hawkins, who spent the bulk of his career singing for tips on the Venice Beach boardwalk just outside Los Angeles, embodies the stuff of a blues romantic's sweetest dreams, and not just because he's dead. He recorded one single in the mid-Sixties that sank without a trace; he did time in prison (for flashing kids, no less); his first album was cut in 1971 but held until 1982 while he served his sentence; the longplayers issued on independent labels upon his return to society never found an audience wide enough to lift him from obscurity; and even when he did get a shot at the big leagues -- when DGC released the masterful The Next Hundred Years in 1994 -- the album broadened his fan base only slightly more than the smaller-scaled efforts on indie labels such as Rounder, PT, and Evidence.

But Hawkins was hardly a stereotype; rather, he was arguably the most distinctive blues singer to emerge since Rounder put out those early-Seventies sessions as 1982's Watch Your Step. Two new collections, Rhino's career-spanning The Ted Hawkins Suffer No More and Evidence's live disc The Final Tour, culled from Hawkins's 1994 road trip, expertly showcase what set the man apart from the average blues and soul journeyman: the hard grit and rough grain of his voice, which was infused with the melismatic flair of both Sam Cooke and Otis Redding; his solid if basic acoustic guitar work, which was a perfect match for his forthright vocals; and most important, the intimacy and evocativeness of his own songwriting and his ability to turn other artists' material into his own.

As both Suffer No More and The Final Tour prove, Hawkins's gifts as an interpreter approached the hallowed genius of Jerry Lee Lewis: Literally, the man could -- and most often did -- sing anything and make it work. Like the bluesmen of the pre- and postwar era who sang on street corners for spare change, Hawkins always kept an ear to what his boardwalk audience wanted to hear, and he drew from that expansive repertoire whenever a producer came courting him for a record deal. That repertoire was vast and seemingly bottomless, encompassing the urbane R&B of Brook Benton ("I Got What I Wanted"), the boozy honky-tonk of Webb Pierce ("There Stands the Glass"), the sweet sauntering soul of Cooke ("Having a Party"), the autobiographical musings of Jesse Winchester ("Biloxi"), and the most searching and yearning of John Fogerty's work with Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Long As I Can See the Light"). And in nearly every case, Hawkins's covers were definitive, from the downright spooky "Biloxi" to "I Got What I Wanted," in which he turns Benton's string-laden finger-popper into a meditative summary of regret and loss.

What was most remarkable about Hawkins's art, however, was how seamlessly he incorporated others' material into his stockpile of dramatic, gut-wrenching originals, and both Suffer and Tour include some of his best songs: "The Lost Ones" and "The Good and the Bad," masterful articulations of, respectively, economic and emotional poverty; "Strange Conversation," the brooding opener from the DGC disc; the oddly compassionate "Sorry You're Sick," in which he tends to an alcoholic lover by offering to run to the liquor store; and the darkly humorous "Bad Dog." And though the Rhino set includes a pair of fine previously unissued originals from an early-Nineties session (not to mention his impossibly rare 1966 debut single "Whole Lot of Women"), there are a few baffling omissions, most notably "There Stands the Glass," "Long As I Can See the Light," the rolling Southern soul burner "Bring It On Home Daddy" (from the Rounder debut), and "The Ladder of Success," from the DGC album and one of the greatest gospel-fueled songs of social inequity and dignified rage of the past twenty years.

Those songs are all present on The Final Tour, each sung with even more raw power and forcefulness than he brought to their studio counterparts. Plus you get ace readings of Little Johnnie Taylor's "Part Time Love," Hawkins's own "Big Things" and "Revenge of Scorpio," and the warmth, grace, and subtly tormented intensity that defined his live sets. Which means that the Evidence disc is the one to grab first, but whether you opt for it or Rhino's hodgepodge, as soon as you hear one you'll want the other. Despite the overlap of material on Suffer No More and The Final Tour (as well as on the six albums released during his lifetime), it's impossible to own too much Ted Hawkins.

-- John Floyd

Pearl Jam

What a difference a few million fewer units moved makes. When Pearl Jam's 1996 No Code floundered on the charts ("floundered" being a relative term -- it sold more than a million copies), it was as if the world that had previously established the band as the flannel-clad kings of Nineties rock was finally moving on. Perhaps that was the best thing that could have happened to Pearl Jam, liberating the last of Seattle's great grunge trinity (Nirvana and Soundgarden rounding out the trio) from its high-pressure, top-of-the-heap status. The group took a deep breath, relaxed, and delivered Yield, its fifth overall album, and maybe its first genuinely great one.

Pearl Jam has finally strung together a full album of songs that are as extraordinary as bits and pieces from its four prior full-length releases (those past tunes include "Jeremy," "Daughter," "Nothingman," "Better Man," and "Who You Are"). On Yield you'll find soaring rockers ("Faithfull," "Given to Fly," "In Hiding"), melancholy acoustic rock ("Low Light"), and wistful moments ("All Those Yesterdays," and the gorgeous, lilting "Wishlist," even if it fades inexplicably, not quite fully baked). Meanwhile frontman Eddie Vedder displays his typically powerful vocal presence, whether he's expressing grandiose sentiments ("If there were no angels would there be no sin," and "It's rare to come upon a bridge that has not been around or been stepped on") or more earthly concerns, ones seemingly linked to his own rock-star station in life ("I wish I was a sacrifice but somehow still lived on," and "fuckers, he still stands").

But Yield's knockout punch is guitarist Stone Gossard's "No Way," an infectious anti-anthem that trumpets "I've stopped trying to make a difference." Akin to No Code's "Who You Are" and "Smile," which were influenced by the band's then-recent collaborations with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Neil Young, respectively, "No Way" finds Pearl Jam flirting, if ever so slightly, with cut-and-paste postmodern sounds -- the same sounds that have threatened to turn the band into a rock dinosaur. With a steady groove, guitar atmospherics, and even some kind of siren sound in the mix, it's as if these guys have finally discovered Beck and DJ Whoever. Not that "No Way" sounds anything like a turntable orgy -- this is Pearl Jam, after all, and for them at least, their classic rock/suburban punk amalgam still rules. But it's Pearl Jam at long last delivering a truly inspired album worthy of the onslaught of hype previously heaped upon them.

-- Neal Weiss

Various Artists
Great Expectations: The Album

Presented for your disapproval: the contempo soundtrack, a charmless, feckless, transparent marketing tool. This one: sixteen tracks, four of which, the CD sleeve honestly owns up, "do not appear in film." You get: the Woman Who Still Would Be Kate Bush (you know her as Tori Amos) breathily overemoting on "Siren"; Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland painfully stumbling through a Brechtian waltz that's been grafted onto the Beatles "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" by a very shaky surgeon; hilariously overwrought ex-Soundgarden dude Chris Cornell wrestling with his deathless acoustic ballad "Sunshower," at long last revealing the extremely low-rent Steve Miller within; and flotsam from fine young nobodies Poe, Duncan Sheik, Lauren Christy, Fisher, David Garza, and the Verve Pipe. From the days-of-yore file: the Grateful Dead's 1970 "Uncle John's Band," plus Iggy Pop, ably assisted by David Bowie, on 1977's giggly, swaggering "Success."

Rewards for the patient: Mono's percolating little hip-hoppy shuffle "Life in Mono," which cannily cribs a riff from John Barry's theme from the fantastic 1965 Brit secret agent pic The Ipcress File; half a great song ("Like a Friend") by the half-great Pulp; and Cape Verdean alto Cesaria Evora's beguiling, melancholy-sounding "Besame Mucho" (she sings in Portuguese), its melody carried by six- and twelve-string guitars and a cavaquinho (similar to a ukulele), then flecked with piano and soprano sax -- absolutely hypnotic.

-- Michael Yockel

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

Big band swing is not a musical genre often associated with twentysomething surfers hanging ten on the shorelines of Southern California. But put a few surf-savvy, former punk rockers in a room containing a hollow-body guitar, a stand-up bass, and an assortment of shiny brass instruments and watch 'em transform.

The eight members of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy first donned pinstripe suits, spectator shoes, and fedoras around the time most of their peers were grunging it in flannel -- which is to say around 1991. After a couple of years gigging at colleges and the odd nightclub, jumpin' and jivin' in the style of Forties legends Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan and selling self-made CDs out of the back of a van, bandleader Scotty Morris and his cohorts graduated to the big time: a weekly gig at the Derby, one of L.A.'s coolest hangouts. Then came the 1996 indie film Swingers, prominently featuring BBVD and catapulting the group to the forefront of the neoswing lounge scene. Appearances on Fox's Party of Five and Melrose Place followed.

Certainly the camera has been good to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, despite the somewhat staid and more-retro-than-reality roles the group has portrayed in film and on television. The band's eponymous major-label debut (Coolsville has a distribution and marketing deal with EMI-Capitol) brims with a full 54 minutes of romping nitro-jive, a smooth, stylish blend of classic swing filtered through the capable hands of Nineties trendsetters. Horns blare, cymbals crash, and bass lines walk, while singer-guitarist Morris conjures up characters and imagery straight out of classic Bogart movies -- think The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. An aura of gangster (very old school) sensibilities permeates the disc, most notably on "Mr. Pinstripe Suit" and "King of Swing."

The twelve-song disc also includes impassioned new recordings of "You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)" and "Go Daddy-O," both featured on the Swingers soundtrack, and an admirably reworked reading of the Calloway classic "Minnie the Moocher." But Big Bad Voodoo Daddy primarily plays dance music, as evidenced by cuts such as "Jump with My Baby" and "Jumpin' Jack," both custom-made for spontaneous outbreaks of athleticism known in dance circles as the lindy hop and the West Coast swing.

Bassist Dirk Shumaker describes Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as "a cartoon come to life." Cartoon is not far off the mark. Come to life is dead on target. Go Daddy-O!

-- Adam St. James


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