Thursday, October 20, 2011

B.T. Express: Best Of (1974-80)



Don't even try to make head or tail of commercial disco-funk mavens B.T. Express' history -- the B.T. stands for "Brooklyn Trucking," the band having been an offshoot of a celebrated Brooklyn unit called the House Rockers known for local dance parties. Somewhere in between all that they were a trio known as the Madison Street Express. The details of these convoluted origins are eclipsed by the nights the group fired up during a short-lived but huge (in R&B terms) period of commercial success. The consistency of the band's work during its prolific mid-to-late '70s peak is captured quite nicely by this extremely fun and listenable Rhino compilation.

The seven-piece blazed onto radio with the casual, contained energy of "Do it ('Til You're Satisfied)," a hook-filled soul pastiche that sets the stage for much of what's to follow, particularly a sonic fullness with a robust dual attack of saxophones, contrasted by a slightly generic quality in the arrangements. To be frank, this is all very mainstream studio pop, which is why the Express had so little trouble consistently nearing the top of the R&B charts and making a constant presence in black clubs -- but without a serious, protracted break into the mainstream, perhaps unfairly denied them. They never gained the air of Legitimacy, whatever that means, that would've lent them the critical acclaim afforded someone like Chic. It's no longer possible to really understand why, now that '70s sheen just sounds cool to us.

Unfortunately, for all the heights they reached in the '70s, B.T. Express haven't been able to glean much of a revivalist audience in recent years either, perhaps because their work is unabashed pop that doesn't fit with the "eccentric soul" material now in vogue. That's a pity because this music has as broad an appeal as any of the great '70s soul; you hear this CD and don't feel like moving your ass and raising the roof, consider yourself bloodless. What's most endearing is how well B.T. Express can take a cornball idea like the novelty train song "Express," sort of a watered-down Rufus Thomas thing, and turn it into a disco juggernaut -- the kitsch, the fun, the sex all hang together like in the best and most intellectually dubious pop music. And the sci-fi R&B move "Mental Telepathy" might be ridiculous, but try to deny it's more fun than a night at the drive-in. Catchier, too.

The only serious objections one can have to these songs are largely based on tweaks that could have made the singles a bit tighter; for instance, "If It Don't Turn You On" is a strong, well-written James Brown-like funk number marred solely by a vocal performance that's all too calm for the title, subject matter, rhythm, and gist. Luckily, the same idea is fully realized later on the enormous "Can't Stop Groovin' Now, Wanna Do It Some More," which makes no qualms about its expert and infectious capturing of 1976 as an aural drama for the ears. Few disco tracks come to life so uproariously, so effortlessly, while still capturing their era this precisely. I think the most impressive song Rhino's included, though, is the uproariously ballsy, insane cover of the Carpenters' "Close to You," which demolishes the original the way Al Green singing "Light My Fire" demolishes the Doors. An insipid pop song dripping with manipulative banality somehow becomes a monstrous soul firecracker -- never has it been more clear that pop greatness is all in the performances. I never thought I'd say this in any context, but: "Close to You" smokes.

Anyone with a taste for this period of soul music is advised to give a churn through The Best of B.T. Express, and anyone in need of a perfect party disc will find it irresistible, largely because Rhino's sequence is so expert -- the intensity never flags, and the comp stays remarkably steady from start to end for a full eighty minutes. It's easy to imagine that the band has enough great material to keep going for a second disc, too. The most wholehearted utility, though, for B.T. Express is as a bit of steaming comfort. They aren't one of the top '70s groups but their reliability makes their work addictive and warmly refreshing. This music is so easy on the ear it can prove therapeutic; think of it as bubblegum funk. And what's wrong with dancing in the living room as a form of therapy, I ask you?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Björk: Biophilia (2011)



Read my Metro Times review.

Here's how it works:
1) Vespertine
2) Post
3) Homogenic
4) Medúlla
5) Debut
6) Selmasongs
7) Biophilia
8) Volta

Disagreements welcome in comments.

Also, Dancer in the Dark is the best movie of the 2000s.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Al Green: Definitive Greatest Hits (1967-2007)



You know how it is, boys. The lights are down low, you sink yourself down into the couch, you want to set the mood so you can get in a sensual supersexy mood while you work on your trigonometry homework. Or, you have speakers whose dynamics you want to check, something with soft tones and complexity and a boom-kick, right? Well, these are the two purposes for which this compilation -- an update of a legendary predecessor with the same cover -- is primarily useful. Oh, and sex, if you're into that sort of thing. One thing it's not great for, no matter how much you love Al Green (and I love him a lot), is hunkered-down detailed listening. In fact, this is the sort of greatest hits compilation (along with Prince's The Hits and the Beatles' Red and Blue albums) that causes such widespread disdain for the format.

Me, I love greatest hits compilations; I am pretty sure the three finest CDs ever pressed are Chuck Berry's The Great Twenty-Eight, Pet Shop Boys' Discography and the Beach Boys' Endless Summer, and such a list would rank at least six or seven compilations and even the Big Star twofer package #1 Record / Radio City above any straight studio album. But where I split with the compilation tradition is when it applies to artists whose albums are not only essential but very carefully paced -- and chopping them up and stacking their peaks one after another isn't as persuasive and ingratiating as one might expect.

To elaborate a bit, Greatest Hits was for years my go-to Al Green CD. A coworker had it at my old job and we blasted it from our little boom box in the deli at least three times a week for months. And this was in a place where Green was a common fixture on the overhead Muzak system anyway. Still couldn't get enough of the ballsy, pressing seduction and harsh brass hits of "Let's Stay Together," the swampy groove of "Take Me to the River," the voodoo orgasm of "Call Me." I left that job and no longer had the disc, then miraculously a teenaged library volunteer who (!) didn't know who Al Green was found a copy stuck in a young adult novel called The Book Thief. After I spent a few frustrating minutes trying to explain to the poor girl that Green was not just "some guy," I realized this was a Major Score and took it home and pretended I had a girlfriend to sit on the couch with over some red wine and trig and, yes, Al. Of course then track two comes up, "Tired of Being Alone," and it's so succinctly accurate I have to put my head on the pillow and drift off.

This is superlative music, not just in the context of soul which would be enough -- as a leading arbiter of pop itself, Green was peerless in his prime, his incredible voice and the muscle and velvet of his songs seemingly engineered to appeal across all cultural and color lines (a capability brilliantly illustrated by a scene in Steven Spielberg's Munich). Not to be confrontational, but if you don't like Al Green, you're probably not a very fun person. If you don't like these songs, you're just a nutter. At least fourteen of these twenty-one tracks are masterpieces; none of the others are anything less than delightful, and that includes the two cuts from the 2000s, especially 2004's "I Can't Stop," which fit in without any kind of strain.

So why isn't this an A+? Because in the last year I've begun to investigate Al Green's albums, of which much more will be written here in the future, and as much as I hesitate to make such a bold proclamation I think his career in the '70s can be compared to the Beatles', or to Prince's first decade -- the LPs are that consistent, powerful, well-crafted. Once you know them, as much as the flawless lineup of "I'm Still in Love with You" into "Look What You Done for Me" into "Here I Am" into "Love and Happiness" might make you momentarily religious, it makes a massive fucking difference hearing these songs the way Green initially put them together in albums, albums easily among the best of the '70s. I'm still processing the entirety of Green's career in that period, but I can already feel Greatest Hits fading in prominence for me. I discovered Prince through the aforementioned two-disc Hits, the Beatles eons ago through the Red and Blue LPs, but I honestly can't imagine listening to any of those now. The Beatles' non-LP singles are more logically collected elsewhere and condensing any of their albums seems brutal and pointless; the same goes for Prince's delirious (n.p.i.) run of artistic triumphs in the '80s -- clipping "When Doves Cry" and "Little Red Corvette," or "Eleanor Rigby" and "In My Life" seems beside the point. And I say that as someone generally very skeptical of how much "album context," sequencing, pacing matter as an artistic Statement.

But my point is simply -- when all of an artist's albums are so consistently pleasurable and well-balanced they could easily be best-ofs themselves, said best-of can quickly lose its purpose. With that said, I will add absolutely unequivocally that this is the introduction to both Green and to 1970s pop music. The songs are universal, playful, evocative, so much more than just fucktime soundtracks, though that's fine too; and the revelation today is for one, the crunchy, hard-soft production, which makes you want to keep listening for eternity and the likes of which we're unlikely ever to hear again -- music, R&B and otherwise, has simply never sounded so good, before or since. And for two, Green's voice, standing with Aretha Franklin and John Lennon as the finest rock & roll has managed to record; and in terms of his command of his voice and its nuances, he may be the best of all. The perfect collision of masculinity, androgyny, sex, and pain, he can turn you around on everything; he can make you believe again, in rock & roll or soul or singing or sex or life or love or whatever. You need him if you don't have him already. Start here.

Al Green Gets Next to You (1971)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cass McCombs: Wit's End (2011)


I'm excited for this Californian singer-songwriter's forthcoming sixth album, Humor Risk, as the songs being issued to promote it show an artist working at a much higer level than on the majority of his prior work, despite a good deal of acclaim afforded him since he surfaced around 2002. I was excited enough by the material Domino sent me that I reversed an earlier decision to ignore the previous record from the prolific McCombs, Wit's End, released earlier this year.

Unfortunately, this record ends up reminding me why I've always been a bit of a dissenter about McCombs, as he falls into a lot of negative stereotypes I have about folkies in general. McCombs also here welcomes the currently in-vogue circa 1986 MOR production of the likes of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, and even though his talent is clearly leaps and bounds above the similarly watered-down Kurt Vile, his work on this album meanders and collapses, pretty as it is.

McCombs has spent his entire career on the cusp of attaining the widespread success of the likes of Iron & Wine, Alexi Murdoch, and Sufjan Stevens. He hasn't missed for lack of talent -- there is a real and evocative voice there, it just gets locked in too-consistently moody dirges that frequently stretch for seven to eight minutes. With any luck, given the extra-loud praise afforded this release, Humor Risk will mark the point when I finally break past my prejudices and fall for his work. We'll find out in less than a month.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Miles Davis: Relaxin' (1958)



This wonderful LP collects some of the best material recorded in two legendary sessions by the peerless Miles Davis Quintet in 1956. Despite its luxurious sound and adorably calm art deco cover, this music is anything but complacent. Davis' most celebrated album, with a subsequent band, is of course Kind of Blue; the contrast is fascinating because Blue consisted of performances by a band who'd never played those songs before. On the four albums from the incredibly fruitful '56 Quintet sessions, we're getting utter precision: the band knew these songs back to front, having gathered them from their live repertoire at this point. So if Kind of Blue gives us art and detail and beauty copped from feeling through new ideas, this is pure virtuosity from a supremely well-practiced unit.

And the reason that's so interesting is that in sonic terms, you'd assume the opposite, which speaks to Davis' magic skill as arranger -- you get a feeling of genuine scrappiness and fascinated fixation on Relaxin', despite the overwhelming beauty of Davis and John Coltrane's solos throughout. "If I Were a Bell" has such a splendidly celebratory feeling it seems to jump off the record, opening with the intense concentration on those lovely first notes that proceed into eight minutes of preoccupations with the song's possibilities, something that would lead to both Davis' performing it live for the remainder of his career and to the formation of the Guys and Dolls showtune as a jazz standard. But it's the version of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" that seems the most stunning showcase of the band's interplay, opening the second half with six minutes of bliss. Still, the entire record reflects a perfect concentration of mood and genius. As befits its title, it works well enough as background music, but pay close attention and the seduction will be complete, the cohesion impressive (even if Walkin' remains the masterpiece of this group of albums, "Walkin'" the top song of the collection).

Hard bop as a genre peaks here, the moody sense of knocked-off magic a complete triumph, and really the Quintet is astoundingly thorough. They exercise so many of the possibilities of the music they're playing here that there was scarcely anywhere left to go with this branch of jazz afterward; Davis was always restless, always moving, and there is perhaps nothing else in his catalog so open, so inviting as these hard bop Quintet records, so they are to be savored. It's always a thrill to hear Davis and Coltrane together, but mention must be made of Red Garland's superb piano work (particularly on the two October '56 cuts that close the record), Philly Joe Jones' drums, and especially Paul Chambers' momentous bass playing. The Miles Davis Quintet was a truly complete band, and we're lucky to have so much of their work on record.

Birth of the Cool (1950)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Feist: Metals (2011)


Read my Metro Times review.

Can I think a record is both incredibly brave and incredibly disappointing?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Walkmen: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002)

(Star Time International)


Though the core of their sound, evoking gritty late '70s NYC, remains the same, the Walkmen have ended up being a very different band from the one suggested by their 2002 debut album. Just for a start, look at their best song and for my money the best song of the 2000s, "The Rat," an angry kicking against whatever darkness, whatever loneliness may surround -- a lifting up through pounding drums and unceasing guitar. Or look at their extraordinary albums of 2008 and 2010 respectively, You and Me and Lisbon, and their Van Morrison-like subservience to unkempt emotion and awestruck beauty. I tend to think of the Walkmen now as a band that captures triumph, that describes picking oneself up to reach adulthood and maturity and happiness and all the conflicts those things create, all the challenges time itself can't help but throw in. But on the very first track of their first album, "they're winning." I don't know if it's my imagination or what, but on Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, I feel like the Walkmen are opening their career in a fatalistic mindset, they're winning and we've been had and wake up, stop talking. These are the sounds of someone who's given up.

I don't know for sure, of course. I don't know what might have inspired the remnants of Jonathan Fire*Eater, once the great white hope of DreamWorks and one of the most hyped bands of the late '90s, to recruit Hamilton Leithauser and Peter Bauer and wail out "The headaches and worries / And crying and bills to pay / How could they keep it up so long?" It was probably the mood of those times. Even before 9/11, I remember the early 2000s as a morbidly depressed period, as the beginning of a tragic decline to our national character. A million things personal and non could've been going through the Walkmen's heads back then.

But to me, this album is about my dad, who died this weekend. It's funny because he would've hated the way Hamilton sings -- he didn't like throaty, tune-challenged vocalists and really loathed Bob Dylan in particular -- but that's what is suggested to me by not just the words and the defeatist mood but the music itself, the lonesome and sad distance that makes me think of how little I finally understood my father, and how much I was able to move past that (not enough). I knew the warm person I knew as a child was there somewhere, but increasingly far away from me, like those distant guitars here that you can sense have a chiming, delicate sweetness but seem to be spilling out from another room, where they are singing to some other party. The way some of the songs never quite seem to start, and the mood of waiting for a release that never quite occurs.

When I think really carefully about what my dad never got to do and the physical therapy he didn't want to participate in and the time he drove doped up to Wilmington to empty a storage unit and didn't speak to anyone, just felt for some reason that it was important, I think of "Wake Up" -- the pounds of disappointment -- and "The Blizzard of '96," so strange and mysterious but somehow human and familiar, somehow a shadow of something vividly remembered. I wonder about that drive, I wonder what during those two hours coming and going he listened to on the radio. I wonder if it rained and whether he put on the wipers. I wonder if as he slept at my grandfather's house that night he knew it would be the last time he saw the city in which he grew up, if he suspected he only had a few weeks left. I think he probably did.

The suffering is over now. We're all left with dreaming and remembering, wondering what we could've done differently because we all -- the three of his children -- have fallen away from him in recent years, and was it our fault or his or no one's? Was it just the way people form and trail off when they've built their own lives? He knew my brother and I turned out all right and were happy; I wish he could have felt the same about my sister but somehow it's like these songs (which she wouldn't like either) are about her too. And then I think, the surrealism of losing a parent, of the unit of support that was so constantly there for so many years, and this album's title track seems so precisely to convey that. Even just the languid sadness of the cover art, I see my dad in that too. I see how scared he was, how out of time he felt, how much he wanted things different.

And in all of this I hear his disappointment. Not in me, though I suppose it's possible he felt that, but in the world. I hear that in the legendary "We've Been Had," a song that I heard the Walkmen perform in an elegiac reprise this past January, before the cancer began to really eat away at Dad. The hauntingly pretty rolls of the piano, and the way Hamilton takes the melody far above its technical structure, just letting the song sing him -- those are hints of the afternoon sun, the peace that might be in the future. Its words so accurately describe the things I wish might have carried him through.

I see myself change as the days change over
I hear the songs and the words don't change
I write them out of the book right there
We've been had, you say it's over
Sometimes I'm just happy I'm older
We've been had, I know it's over
Somehow it got easy to laugh out loud

He was so far out of my world in a way. He had a different immediate family now. They were the ones who were with him. But I can think of him in my own way. I can understand what always hurt him, and what hurt him at the end, and what I hope finally let him go and gave him relief. Tonight I think of him in this music and try to measure it all and make sure I can be at peace with the end. Tomorrow I'll remember the good things, but today the ups and downs and all of it. Today I let the questions I'll never properly answer float around and I do my best to be silly and nice and live my own life but I won't forget them. And tomorrow we don't go on as if nothing happened, we just "go on."

Lisbon (2010)