Look on Yonder's Wall
The Magic Sam Legacy
Feel Like Blowing My Horn
Big Joe Williams
Piney Woods Blues
Slickness is bad for practically every type of music, but for the blues it's fatal. The appeal of blues is rooted in its primitive origins, and once those are glossed over, the rudimentary notes lack the emotion that might have made them indelible. That's why much of modern blues, produced within an inch of its life in an effort to up its accessibility, is so lifeless. Swinging from the Rafters, a recent disc by Long John Hunter on the Alligator imprint, is a case in point. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with it; the playing is professional, the songs are competently structured, and Hunter's singing and guitar playing are up to industry standards. And yet the utter predictability of the disc makes it more suitable for the middle-aged tourists who visit Chicago's Rush Street in search of the exotic than for anyone hungry for the raw truth the blues is capable of delivering.
Those interested in the latter should turn to these four new releases on Delmark. The Arthur Crudup collection is the least of the batch, in large part because he's the most lightweight of these performers; he prefers to skitter along the surface of a song rather than dive into its heart. But his versions of his own "That's All Right, Mama" (made famous by Elvis Presley) and "Rock Me Mama," a previously unreleased effort, find him at his roughest and most evocative.
Samuel Maghett, a.k.a. Magic Sam, who was only 32 when he died in 1969, came to artistic maturity in a later era; as a result, the songs on Legacy have more rock and roll in their soul. But Sam's secret was his wildness, a quality that distinguishes his romp through John Lee Hooker's "I Feel So Good (Boogie Chillun)" and a dozen more exhilarating efforts.
For his part, pianist Roosevelt Sykes demonstrates the range of the blues, tossing a dollop of New Orleans into his boogies, strides, and rambles. But Feel Like Blowing My Horn certainly doesn't feel like musicology; there's nothing academic about Sykes's ecstatic wails on "Rock-a-Bye Birdie."
Piney Woods Blues captures Big Joe Williams in a relaxed mood; the material was taped in early 1958 at a record store and a private home. But his heartfelt nine-string guitar playing and guttural vocals manage to put a charge into even "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," which have more mileage on them than Chuck Berry. Hell, "Big Joe Talking," which is just what its title says it is, displays more authenticity than half the blues CDs issued this decade. When it comes to the blues, the times, they are a-changin' -- and they're getting worse.
-- Michael Roberts
Tragic Animal Stories
Any college rocker worth his bachelor's degree will sooner or later head wide-eyed in search of postgrad sound adventures. Few, though, will be as well-equipped to handle a musical career beyond the gates as Eric Bachmann, maestro behind the one-person pop ensemble called Barry Black.
It shouldn't surprise us: Bachmann's main gig, Chapel Hill's Archers of Loaf, has always exhibited an aptitude for making music that transcends its indie-rock pedigree even while helping define the genre. Besides, Bachmann had the advantage of spending his college years in music school. While his brethren were chugging Pearl Jam, Bachmann sipped Stravinsky.
Bachmann's first steps outside the Archers' conventional four-man rock thing came in 1995 with Barry Black's self-titled debut, a patchwork of spare-time recordings with local North Carolina musicians (Ben Folds), producers (Caleb Southern), and random scenesters. Though too informal and unassuming to assert itself as anything but a lark, the recording was an unexpected gem of eccentric pop that revealed compositional talents Bachmann had only hinted at in his other band. Fortunately, Bachmann deemed his sideshow worthy of further exploration.
So we have Barry Black's followup, Tragic Animal Stories, a far more formal and self-conscious affair. Taking time to fully script and sculpt the arrangements, Bachmann cashes in on some of the skills he learned in orchestration class. With a blend of sounds both classical (strings, horns, woodwinds, piano) and modern (guitars, percussion, loops), he paints each of the ten tracks in a rich and distinct -- and playfully appropriate -- hue: Plodding tubas motivate "Dueling Elephants"; an ominous violin propels "When Sharks Smell Blood"; synth washes and distant whale-call vocals start "Tropical Fish Revival"; and so on. Even lumping in the fond references to Satie's piano figures, Cage's exotic percussion, Eno's static ambiance, and Beefheart's dissonant guitar, the pieces are consistently obliging to modern pop tastes. It's like listening to Peter and the Wolf done by the Brian Wilson Chamber Group.
-- Roni Sarig
With the wretched Wilson Phillips, Carnie and Wendy Wilson -- along with childhood chum Chynna Phillips -- cashed in on a fleeting pop moment. At the dawn of this decade, progeny rock managed to unite proud baby boomers (who vicariously felt they had raised these pampered superstar offspring) with confused teens, whose resistance had been lowered by too many Roxette videos. Along with the mannequin-pretty boys of Nelson, Wilson Phillips dented the airwaves with songs so generic they sounded as if they had been written by market researchers. The masses quickly came to their senses, however, and Wilson Phillips's second album died a quick death. Nowadays the fruit of superstar loins (e.g., Jakob Dylan) are expected to pay a few dues and maybe even write a decent song or two.
In light of all that, it's hard to think of a project less eagerly anticipated in 1997 than a collaboration between the two Wilson sisters -- what, we have to listen to them and we don't even get to see Chynna in the videos? But this album is being billed as much more: a full-blown family reunion, with dysfunctional dad Brian Wilson lending his long-absent genius to the proceedings. Unfortunately, as with so many Beach Boys albums of the past 25 years (remember the "Brian's Back" campaign for 15 Big Ones?), the publicity effort shows much more creativity than the music. Brian lends his vocals to only four tracks, sounding stronger than he has in ages but not quite fitting inside his daughters' cramped dollhouse. He contributed to the writing of only three songs, and one of them, the eternally gorgeous "'Til I Die," is three decades old.
Nonetheless, the album begins on a promising note. The punchy "Monday Without You" (co-written by Carole King) rides a chiming twelve-string into a catchy chorus that's slick without setting off any Muzak detectors. For a moment you think maybe the Wilsons have elevated their California pop to the formulaic-but-pleasing level of late-period Bangles. No such luck.
Wendy and Carnie are decent singers, and their obvious sibling love is endearing, but whenever their voices blend, you feel like you're trapped in commercial-jingle land and someone's trying to buy the world a Coke. At his mid-Sixties peak, their dad could take similar block-harmony arrangements and make your heart skip a beat. But as any Spin¬al Tap aficionado knows, there's a fine line between cleverness and stupidity.
-- Gilbert Garcia
It's an eerie coincidence that in this, the post-Diana era, a paparazzo plays a pivotal (but nonspeaking) part in Michael Daugherty's hip new opera. (His menace is conveyed not with words but with tap-dancing.) And it's even eerier that this CD's inlay card features a vintage photograph of about a dozen paparazzi armed with huge flashbulbs and anxious expressions.
There's no doubt about it -- this is the right time for Jackie O, the most delicious new stage work I've heard in years. Daugherty's opera (the literate libretto is by Wayne "The Queen's Throat" Koestenbaum) is peopled by the likes of Liz Taylor, Andy Warhol, Maria Callas, and Princess Grace, plus "la belle Jackie." The year is 1968 and the opening scene is a Warhol "happening." Jackie, five years a widow, comes out of seclusion, is painted by Warhol, and is wooed by Onassis, who takes her to see the Swedish soft-porn classic I Am Curious (Yellow). Jackie and Maria are rivals, but, just like in Bellini's opera Norma (an earlier triumph for Callas), they are reconciled, and Maria agrees to smash the paparazzo's intrusive camera. Jackie telephones Jack on "the other side" and finds a kind of closure. The opera ends with a deliberately cheesy folksong as Jackie decides to return to an America also in need of healing. "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." Waiter, another Scotch!
Shallow on the outside (what did you expect?) and deep in the middle, Jackie O could be a hit on Broadway. If so, one hopes it would be a looser rendition than the Houston Grand Opera production recorded here. (Patti Lupone would make a great Callas.) Still, Eric Owens is wonderful as Onassis -- he's smarmy self-love personified. And as the Great Woman herself, Nicole Heaston shows strength as well as tragedy. Jackie O actually gives postmodernism a good name. Vulgarity can still be fun.
-- Raymond Tuttle