!Ay Califas! Raza Rock: The '70s & '80s
To the listening public, new directions in music often seem like Athena sprung fully armed out of ... nowhere. But musicians know better. They've seen, and often adored, the hidden head of Zeus. For example, few of the musicians who became associated with grunge were unfamiliar with the Wipers, the Portland, Oregon-based band many consider to be the progenitors of the sound. Few of the musicians involved in what has come to be known as rock en espanol are unfamiliar with the raza rock made by Latins -- most of them from California -- in the Seventies and Eighties.
Now, with the release of the Rhino/ Zyanya compilation AAy Califas! Raza Rock, the listening public has an opportunity to familiarize itself with the funky, enthusiastic, and often hilarious forebears of modern-day bands such as Orixa, Los Super Elegantes, and Maria Fatal. The album, put together by Ruben Guevara of Ruben & the Jets (a Sixties side project of the Mothers of Invention), spans the Latin gamut. Some of the music will be instantly recognizable, including War's anthem "Low Rider," Santana's smooth "Oye Como Va," and Cheech & Chong's inspired idiocy "Born in East L.A."
Some of the music, however, will likely be unfamiliar, especially to an Anglo audience. C/S, another Guevara band, offers up a big, funky, feathered serpent of a talking blues history lesson of Mexicans in the United States with "Con Safos." In this John Trudell-like piece of poetry, we're told, "June, 1943/Was a month of infamy/ The almighty Hearst press had discovered a menace to L.A./You had found your sacrificial lamb special-of-the-day/Thirsty for blood and hungry for sales/Your headlines screamed/'Mexican Zoot Suits plan to attack American servicemen/Be downtown between six and ten.'"
The Plugz and Los Illegals offer some joyous Latin punk with "La Bamba" and "El Lay," respectively. Los Lobos, playing as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (the Wolves of East L.A.), provide a frenetic version of the traditional Mexican vibe on "Sabor a Mi." Azteca, Malo, Cold Blood, Daniel Valdez, Sapo, Tower of Power, El Chicano, Yaqui, Cruzados, and Tierra round out the mix.
A dangerous emotional cocktail, this compilation has the fat rubbery wobble of funk (many of these bands, such as Santana and War, were multiracial), the ringing silver racket of congas, the acidic bite of filthy guitars, and the sabor of politics, bravery, love, good times, hope, and pride.
-- Curt Hopkins
Ben Folds Five
Naked Baby Photos
Rogue popsters Ben Folds Five (a threesome, actually) have been cheeky and talented enough to get away with channeling Carole King and Joe Jackson so far, and Naked Baby Photos continues their winning way of reaching back while blasting forward. This collection of live shots, inspired improvs, and songs deleted from prior releases does a great job of documenting the various stages of the young band's career -- and capturing the trio (pianist Folds, bassist Robert Sledge, drummer Darren Jessee) at its chaotic best. The loose and uncensored nature of some of the live tracks may require a judgment call for those thinking of starting their Ben Folds Five collection here, but this is essential listening for fans and an oddly logical third offering that justifies itself terrifically.
"Eddie Walker" and "Jackson Cannery," from the band's first seven-inch single, prove that the trio was fairly amazing right out of the box; we hear all the crucial elements emerge -- engaging dynamics, smart-ass remarks, pounding piano, thrashing drums, and the mournful phrasing that smacks of both sarcasm and empathy.
Concert recordings of "Underground" and "Song for the Dumped" are examples of the band's keen ability to take quirky, eloquent songs and beat the hell out of them to stunning effect, while "Julianne" confirms what a blistering live act they can be. The mind-numbing side effects of road life are also well represented here in crashing burlesque odysseys such as "The Ultimate Sacrifice" and "For Those of Ya'll Who Wear Fannie Packs," the latter a juvenile, cataclysmic sound-check jam captured for posterity by a technician who happened to leave the tape running while he took a break.
But it's the lonely piano tune "Boxing" that provides the album's chills-down-the-spine moment. As Folds revels in the circumspect melancholy of the song and the almost palpable energy of a hushed Japanese audience, the power of the moment transcends the fact that it's just another night and just another show in the life of this particular tune. One can almost smell the cigarette smoke curling through the stagnant air of a thousand near-empty bars at last call, as the song was rehashed and rejuvenated for crowds large and small through the band's history. This ability to put listeners in the front row and keep them there makes Naked Baby Photos a compelling scrapbook.
-- Robin Myrick
Train Kept A-Rollin'
As one-third of Johnny Burnette's incendiary Rock 'n' Roll Trio, Paul Burlison helped introduce the slashing sound of fuzzed-out guitar on the 1956 rockabilly cult item "Train Kept A-Rollin'," a manic, choogling rocker powered by Burlison's neck-scaling, overamped runs. The trio split up in 1957, and vocalist-guitarist Johnny Burnette and bassist brother Dorsey have long been laid to rest. Burlison spent the Sixties and Seventies in retirement, then resurfaced in the Eighties on a tribute album to the Rock 'n' Roll Trio (the long-deleted Johnny Burnette's Rock 'n' Roll Trio and Their Rockin' Friends from Memphis) and as a member of the Sun Rhythm Section. Train Kept A-Rollin' is the 68-year-old guitarist's first album as a bandleader, and throughout the set he proves he's lost little of his flash-and-burn style over the decades.
Train Kept A-Rollin' finds Burlison riffing and wailing among an inspired gathering of stellar musicians and vocalists, including the Band's Levon Helm and Rick Danko, Memphis soul diva Mavis Staples, Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano, Fabulous Thunderbirds harpist-vocalist Kim Wilson, and cousins Rocky (Johnny's son) and Billy Burnette (Dorsey's boy). But this album is neither a stodgy, all-star homage to an ancient genre nor a mere fete to a legendary sideman. Instead Burlison and crew bring new energy -- new life, even -- to some of rockabilly's hoariest anthems, from "Love My Baby" and "Hound Dog" to old Trio classics such as "Lonesome Train," "Lonesome Tears in My Eyes," and, of course, the title track. Although neither Rocky nor Billy showed much promise during their respective solo careers in the Eighties, the Burnettes turn in surprisingly vibrant vocals throughout the set (the former on "Train Kept A-Rollin'," the latter on "Memphis Blues," which he co-wrote). Kim Wilson may be an overbearing and irritating white-boy blues singer with the T-Birds, but his vocal here on "Love's Like Rain" is full of nuance, grace, and grit (the only way to sing, one would reckon, when someone like Mavis Staples is singing behind you).
Naturally, though, the star of the set is Burlison, who turns in performances that are alternately slinky ("Lonesome Tears in My Eyes"), sleazy ("Love's Like Rain") and scintillating ("Lonesome Train," "Boogie to Woodstock") -- all bristling with blues power, dexterous as the honky-tonk workouts of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. In other words, rockabilly playing in its quintessence. More than 40 years after the fact, the innovative raunch Burlison brought to early rock and roll guitar playing still cracks and thunders with awesome power and authority. (Sweetfish, 920 Edie Rd., Argyle, NY 12809)
-- John Floyd