Shot Of Rhythm

[ Saturday, September 16, 2006 ]


La alma

After listening to the new Los Lobos album, THE TOWN AND THE CITY, multiple times in the five days since it's release, I am ready to call it an absolute masterwork. The band's stacked up at least a couple classic albums over their storied career (HOW WILL THE WOLF SURVIVE and KIKO for sure, with other records having their partisans), but TOWN/CITY distinguishes itself from those classics in a surprising direction: it didn't immediately strike me as excellent. Make no mistake, it's damn good on first listen, but it's taken me those multiple listenings to begin fully unpacking its textured, nuanced grace. There aren't any instant-classic songs on here (which, from "Will The Wolf Survive" to "Good Morning Aztlan," Los Lobos have never lacked), nor is there the vibrant invention of "Mas Y Mas," "Kiko and the Lavender Moon," etc.

What there is, though, and in mass quantities, is superbly crafted music. A loosely-constituted meditation on the immigrant experience in America (particularly, though not exclusively, the journeys of Mexicans to and in the U.S.), TOWN/CITY rises and falls with the passions and ambiguities inherent in that potent thematic center. There are moments of great optimism, even satisfaction, related here, but there's also plenty of darkness, whether sadness or desperation. (A couple of tracks could best be described as articulating a kind of unease, perhaps the most affecting tone of them all.) The band doesn't make any overt "statements" over the course of the record, but (like their artistic hermano Alejandro Escovedo) the mere fact that they present the immigrant experience with such taste and complexity prevents these songs from playing, two-dimensionally, into either the romanticization or (for damn sure) the demonization both so prevalent in the immigration "debate." Los Lobos puts the human beings, as wonderfully complicated as humans are, at the heart of this story, with all the richness that implies.

This richness is fitting, since the band once again demonstrates that they are one of our most musically gifted ensembles. David Hidalgo continues to sound like God's own singer, particularly on the near-gospel of "The Valley" and the Band-esque moan of "If You Were Only Here Tonight," and the awesome power of Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas' intertwined guitars (sometimes joined by Louie Perez) continues to be their (semi-) secret weapon: "The Road To Gila Bend" is pure Crazy Horse, and should teach you everything you need to know about why guitar rock mattered in the first place. What particularly strikes me about this record is how fully the band has now embraced its recent dabblings with R&B and soul; what was always a heavy element in their vast musical gumbo is now front-and-center: I could've picked "Little Things," "Don't Ask Why," or the brooding closer "The Town" to spotlight this, but "Free Up" seemed most poignant. (I also didn't include either of Cesar Rosas' now-trademark cumbia numbers, but it wasn't for lack of quality.)

This album now firmly vies with OutKast, The Roots and (believe it or not) the collaboration between Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris for my favorite album of 2006. Like all three of the other contenders, TOWN/CITY is a multi-layered, somewhat challenging listen, the initial pleasures of which fully bloom into their true beauty only through repeated attention. It's music that requires true meditation, and - though I love a compelling single as much as anybody - I'm so glad that, in the age of the IPod (good), Clear Channel (bad) and MTV Cribs (ugly), there are more than a few artists like Los Lobos around to light the soul flame. Muchas gracias.

"The Valley"

"The Road To Gila Bend"

"If You Were Only Here Tonight"

"Free Up"

On the box right now: Los Lobos, THE TOWN AND THE CITY.


Dove With Claws [8:28 PM]

[ Wednesday, September 13, 2006 ]



Today, I spotlight two more recent releases that have gotten regular rotation around my way: it seems fitting, to mark quite the contrast from the low-down bliss of ROGUE'S GALLERY, that these records are gospel.

The first finds folkie Kate Campbell collaborating with Spooner Oldham, the legendary writer/musician whose name and keyboard talents grace literally hundreds of classic soul, country, pop and rock recordings. In recent years, Oldham has become a finally recognized elder statesman of American music, and this recording - FOR THE LIVING OF THESE DAYS - is an intimate collection of spiritual material that recalls Oldham's recent work with equally-legendary partner Dan Penn. At its best, the collaboration between Campbell and Oldham (which encompasses both originals and wide-ranging covers) gently and powerfully speaks to faith's promise, limits and complications, with a musical elegance that matches its thematic gravity. Faith healing at its best.

The first rack, "If I Ever Get To Heaven," is an achingly beautiful statement of purpose, along with being the album's sole Campbell/Oldham collaboration. The second, "Would They Love Him Down In Shreveport?," written by country mainstay Bobby Braddock, speaks to the album's (perhaps) surprising political bent, echoed in this song as well as in versions of Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ" and a tribute to the Civil Rights Movement called "Faces In The Water."

Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham - "If I Ever Get To Heaven," from FOR THE LIVING OF THESE DAYS

Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham - "Would They Love Him Down In Shreveport?," from FOR THE LIVING OF THESE DAYS

The other side of today's gospel two-fer is another astounding compilation from Numero Records, whose ECCENTRIC SOUL compilations are but the most impressive of their super-cool reissue trawls. Their newest collection, GOOD GOD! A GOSPEL FUNK HYMNAL, is a similarly "eccentric" collection of rare gospel-funk, the wonderful and brief moment when riffs from JB, P-Funk, Philly and Memphis collided head-on with the age-old holy musical tradition from black America. As usual with Numero's records, GOOD GOD! is amazingly consistent for a collection of essentially buried treasures, and is both a church-rocking good time, and an excavated element of recent American musical history.

(Dig the Sam & Dave sample on "I Thank The Lord," itself a call-back to Sam & Dave's gospel roots.)

Preacher and the Saints - "Jesus Rhapsody," from GOOD GOD! A GOSPEL FUNK HYMNAL

Mighty Voices of Wonder - "I Thank The Lord," from GOOD GOD! A GOSPEL FUNK HYMNAL

On the box right now: Los Lobos, THE TOWN AND THE CITY. Wow, this one's good. Me gusta mucho.


Dove With Claws [8:31 PM]

[ Sunday, September 10, 2006 ]


Pop music

I've been playing the new collection ROGUE'S GALLERY: PIRATE BALLADS, SEA SONGS AND CHANTEYS quite a bit over the past week. Produced by Hal Willner, the studious eclectic who's produced a series of similarly eccentric tribute compilations, the two-disc set is an astounding collection of music, not so much for its weirdness (which, compared to previous Willner projects, is at a relative minimum) but rather for the sense of easy connection invoked by the themes, lyrics and sounds of these songs, most of which haven't been anything more than curios for decades, if not centuries.

Throughout the 50-some songs on ROGUE'S GALLERY, which are performed by a ship-shape group made up of everyone from stars (Bono, Lou Reed) to niche favorites (Rufus Wainwright, Mary Margaret O'Hara), from keepers of the tradition (Martin Carthy, Baby Gramps), to even actors (Micky Jay, John C. Reilly), there emerge the same interests and desires which drive pop music to this day, from lewd descriptions of sex (apologies to Luther Campbell, but 2 Live Crew never out-dirtied the verses in "Good Ship Venus" or "Baltimore Whores") to the ongoing struggles against mortality and oppression. Here, with humor, pathos and an overriding sense of life, is the music that made up the daily lives of a pop-culture segment whose antiquity (and seeming "authenticity") makes them now a subject of scholarly and museum-based appreciation. This is good, of course, but I can't help but feeling that these songs are a little bit like a NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL MUSIC! compilation for the 19th-century Atlantic. Judging by the energetic, irreverent performances offered by the contributors, overseen by Willner, and musical directors that include Bill Frisell, it seems like all involved can feel me on that one.

It's impossible, in this space, to try and capture the breadth and depth of ROGUE'S GALLERY in a single entry, but I've tried to pick a cross-section that captures what I'm really responding to in the collection. There are two good drinking songs, each full of ragged spirit: John C. Reilly's performance on "Fathom The Bowl" is particularly noteworthy, and yet more evidence (after his performances in CHICAGO and PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION) that this man should make some records. ("Fathom The Bowl" is equalled by Reilly's non-posted performance of the anti-war ballad "My Son John," which Springsteen also recently recorded as "Mrs. McGrath.")

Then we have "Hog-Eye Man," a sea-faring tribute to the smooth motherfucker who alternately goes by the names of Back Door Man, Gypsy Davy, Jody, and countless others; English folk veteran Martin Carthy delivers a fine performance on that one. Finally is "Bonnie Portmore," an Irish anti-war/environmentalist song, which links the destruction of Ireland's Portmore Forest to the British occupation, and the need for timber for which Britain's military ripped the trees of Portmore from their roots. Lucinda Williams hasn't sounded better (or less sleepy) in years.

Three Pruned Men - "Bully In The Alley"

John C. Reilly - "Fathom The Bowl"

Martin Carthy - "Hog-Eye Man"

Lucinda Williams - "Bonnie Portmore"

On the box right now: Various Artists, GOOD GOD! A GOSPEL FUNK HYMNAL. More on that later...


Dove With Claws [7:23 PM]