Big Trouble in the Mystery House of Joy
(The Fool Records)
For two years running, this New York quartet has played the H.O.R.D.E. tour, without so much as an indie label deal. Nice trick, huh? Wanna know how they do it? Well, it certainly doesn't hurt that singer/songwriter Ben Lewis is best buds with Blues Traveler and H.O.R.D.E. founder John Popper.
Fortunately, Fool proves worthy of the high-profile gig on this bracing debut. From the bluesy thump of "Little Red Rooster" to the jazz-tinged squiggling of "Spaceman," Big Trouble hops genres without losing the rootsy groove that anchors the band. "Black Molly" provides a showcase for guitarist Chad Sonenberg, whose lilting solos call to mind the syncopated runs of Santana. Coming in at two and a half minutes (half the length of the average Fool composition), "Bent" is the group's only conscious stab at a pop song, and the results are remarkably radio-friendly: fat hook, prettified vocal harmonies, and a chiming guitar that all but screams Duran Duran.
It would be overstating the case to call Fool a daringly original act. Let's face it, roots rock ranks as pretty strip-mined terrain at this point. But the foursome's finest efforts ("That Man Is Me," say, or "Brunhilda") do manage to invigorate the genre by infusing it with a gentle pop sensibility, while never sacrificing the percussive power of the bottom end. Credit the band also with a rather large set of balls. Dead set against signing an iffy label deal, the foursome has self-released Big Trouble. Copies can (and should) be obtained by calling 212-539-3665, or e-mailing the band at fool@REDDESIGN.COM.
-- STEVEN ALMOND
BEG, SCREAM & SHOUT!
EXTRAVAGANCE IN PACKAGING IS NO VICE, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE MEDIUM SO PERFECTLY CAPTURES THE MUSICAL MESSAGE. THIS SIX-CD COLLECTION ARRIVES IN A MOCKUP OF 45 SINGLES AND HOUSED IN ONE OF THOSE CARRYING CASES THAT WERE THE IN THINGS FOR LATE-SIXTIES SINGLES BUYERS. OF COURSE, IT'S WHAT'S IN THE GROOVES, OR THE DIGITAL BITSTREAM, THAT COUNTS, AND THE SELECTIONS ON BEG, SCREAM & SHOUT! ARE MASTERFULLY CHOSEN. UNLIKE RHINO'S EXCELLENT BUT SOMEWHAT PREDICTABLE R&B BOX, THIS SOUL COLLECTION STRIKES A BETTER BALANCE BETWEEN WELL-KNOWN HITS AND ARTISTS AND GREAT SIDES BY SECOND-TIER ACTS. THIS APPROACH ALLOWS FOR MORE SURPRISES OVER THE COURSE OF THE WHOPPING 144 TRACKS, ALMOST ALL OF WHICH ARE PRESENTED IN SINGLE-MIX MONO. TUNES HALF-REMEMBERED, TOO-LITTLE HEARD, AND NEVER HEARD AT ALL ARE HERE; TAKEN TOGETHER THEY COMPOSE AN INDELIBLE CROSS SECTION OF SOUL. EVEN THE MOST FAMILIAR TUNES ARE THROWN INTO RELIEF BY THE JUMBLE OF ERAS AND STYLES. WHETHER PRESENTING THE LEGENDS (JAMES, ARETHA, OTIS), UNJUSTLY FORGOTTEN STARS (JOE SIMON, TYRONE DAVIS), OR GREAT ONE- AND TWO-SHOT VOICES (BRENTON WOOD, THE SOUL BROTHERS SIX, THE FLIRTATIONS), THE SET ZOOMS ALONG ON SMART SELECTIONS.
A FEW GRAND DISCOVERIESo Otis Clay's "That's How It Is (When You're in Love)," which begins with the singer imploring, "Please, somebody take your hand and slap some sense in me"; C & the Shells' Jerry Williams-penned "You Are the Circus (I Am the Clown)"; and original versions of "Tainted Love" (Gloria Jones), "Mustang Sally" (by its author, Sir Mack Rice), "Piece of My Heart" (Erma Franklin), "He Was Really Sayin' Something" (the Velvelettes), and "Leaving Here" (Eddie Holland). This may be the most consistently revelatory reissue of the year. It's damn sure one of the most fun.
-- Rickey Wright
(N2K Encoded Music)
In a time when young classical musicians use either gimmicks or their looks to sell CDs, pianist Max Levinson relies on nothing more than good taste, intelligence, and talent to make his debut CD a smashing and deserved success. Instead of presenting a collection of showy trifles, Levinson programs works by Brahms (Variations on an Original Theme), Schumann (Papillons), Schoenberg (Six Little Pieces), and Kirchner (Five Pieces for Piano) that complement each other and create a coherent progression of ideas.
Levinson shows that "modern" music, as exemplified by Schoenberg (1911) and Kirchner (1987), was not simply found under a rock one morning early in this century; it developed naturally both as a tribute to and a reaction against the likes of Brahms and Schumann, who in turn were following Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But this recording is no mere history lesson -- Levinson's playing is vibrant, and his fingers untie Kirchner's tightest knots as easily as they caress Schumann's romantic soul. The clarity and depth of the recording itself are phenomenal. Elizabeth Ostrow produced it, and Phil Ramone, of all people, was the executive producer.
Levinson, who is 25, has won many international awards and is just completing a summer tour of major music festivals in Switzerland, New Mexico, and California. Not one to shy away from technology, he participated in an unusual "cybercast" (www.classicalinsites. com) from New York City's Steinway Hall this June. These performances, teamed with a breathtaking first album, confirm Max Levinson as a pianist of timeless talent. It won't be long until everyone who knows classical piano knows his name.
-- Raymond Tuttle
Pickin' on the Grateful Dead: A Tribute
It's not such a bad idea -- an all-instrumental CD consisting of bluegrass covers of your favorite old Dead songs. Certainly classics such as "Truckin'," "Casey Jones," and "Cumberland Blues" (all included here) evince bluegrass and country roots. And there's a fine cast of musicians on hand to play the tunes. David West plays everything from dulcimer to mandolin to banjo to upright bass. Bill Flores offers a brisk pedal steel. Tom Ball huffs on harmonica. Phil Salazar saws on the fiddle. And that's just a sampling. But something's wrong here. The trouble with these Dead renditions is, well -- Jerry, cover your ears wherever you are, you don't want to hear this -- they're slick. On several tracks the beat is tapped out on a Jack Daniel's cardboard box, and even that sounds slick.
One of the pleasures in listening to the Dead was that it was one of the few rock bands to capture the spontaneity of jazz. Even the group's studio music sounded as if it were discovered in the moment; it wasn't rigid and prearranged. It simply occurred. There's none of that feeling on Pickin'. Every move feels painstakingly plotted.
"Friend of the Devil," for instance, sounds like it's been monitored with a stopwatch to make sure each musician gets equal time to take his licks -- first mandolin, then banjo, then harmonica, then guitar, each one picking up a bit too smoothly where the other left off. Of course, that can't be the case -- West lays down every track but the harp. So what's the point of recording it that way? Slick. And corny.
There's a distinct lack of imagination to these arrangements as well. They do little more than project a lead instrument into carrying the melody, and then provide the appropriate backing. A different instrument takes the place of Garcia's vocal each time, but who cares? Why not just sing?
It's not a total loss. The songs are listenable; after all, you know them by heart, and they haven't exactly been damaged. They're actually pretty humorous at times. Picture yourself at the Disney World amphitheater, listening to some old guys in tuxedos pick and grin their way through "Truckin'." Or imagine you're listening to the audio system demo tape you received with the purchase of your new Oldsmobile. The potential for amusement is endless.
-- Keith Morris
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble Live at Carnegie Hall
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
B.B. King Live at the Regal
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The only time I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan live was at a roadhouse in New Jersey a few months before his first album came out. The place didn't even have a stage -- Vaughan and his drummer and bass player set up on the floor in a corner. At some point he just wandered out, strapped on his guitar, and launched into an incredible instrumental medley that felt as if it contained every single blues tune I'd ever heard. (He couldn't actually do that, could he?) Vaughan proceeded to do a few tunes that would become his hits ("Love-struck Baby," "Pride and Joy"), then exploded in a version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" filled with such fury that it sucked all the oxygen out of the club and froze everyone, even the waitresses, in place.
Live at Carnegie Hall captures the magic of that night, although with the addition of the Roomful of Blues horns it sounds somewhat like a B.B. King show. The singing, the playing (especially Stevie Ray's work on "Honey Bee" and "Dirty Pool") flaunt the joy Vaughan found in performance and help create one of the best live blues albums ever.
On the other hand, the best live blues album of all time, B.B. King's Live at the Regal, completely overshadows even the best King show I ever saw (at a hippie ballroom, backed by Booker T. and the MGs, with hundreds of older Southern blacks sitting up front in chairs they brought themselves). Recorded in 1958 on the South Side of Chicago, this classic (newly remastered) has the feeling of a family reunion, one that brings together Memphis favorite son King and a howling contingent of fans who had recently moved north from the Mississippi Delta. B.B. roars through all his hits, his voice and guitar one-upping each other throughout. Whenever he pauses to gather himself, he tells stories that, no matter how many thousands of times he may have told them before, sound fresh and elicit shouts of recognition from the crowd. While Live at Carnegie Hall has a flat spot here and there, Live at the Regal is flawless, starting at perfection and never slipping below it for even one note.
-- Lee Ballinger