Lots of Paste-related stuff, which I can’t really talk about, other than to say that T Bone Burnett’s new album The True False Identity (due out at the end of April) is worth the 14-year wait, and that the 2-CD, forty-song career retrospective called Twenty Twenty (also released at the end of April) is the ideal introduction to the man and his music. If you are not familiar with him, you should be. T Bone is best known as a hotshot producer (the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain soundtracks, and dozens of great albums from the likes of Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Joe Henry, Sam Phillips, Cassandra Wilson, Gillian Welch, etc.), but before his producing days he played in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, was part of a great, underappreciated group called The Alpha Band, and made a half-dozen solo albums, all of which are superb. He hasn’t recorded anything since 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat, so the new album is a long, long time in coming. In typical T Bone fashion, it’s witty, surreal, and sometimes devastatingly sad, chronicling the disintegration of American culture and the disintegration of a marriage. In the press release, T Bone claims that it’s a comedy album. Uh huh. And Schindler’s List is slapstick.
Otherwise, here’s what I’ve been listening to as I journey to and from the hospital, where my dad is undergoing various heart tests. I’m rockin’ the Grim Reaper, which might explain why my latest batch of music has tended to be on the morbid side.
Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat
This is the Steely Dan mastermind’s third solo album, but the first and third are twenty-five years apart, and they form a sort of loose trilogy – the tales of a young man, a middle-aged man, and a man approaching the end of his life. And although there’s a morbid side to these songs, there’s also a lot of fun. It’s Donald Fagen spitting in the face of death.
Two things continue to stand out: 1) Fagen's sardonic, poetic lyrics, and 2) the uncharacteristic warmth of the backing band. To be sure, this is still slick jazz/pop/rock, the kind of sophisticated, glossy music Fagen has been churning out with Steely Dan for thirty-five years. But Fagen gives this superb band plenty of room to burn, and burn they do; the improvisational interplay borders on the best that jazz has to offer. Usually the presence of 7+ minute songs on a pop album is reason to fear indulgent wankery; here those lengthy songs are the best on the album. And the lyrics are absolutely killer, capturing the conflicted heart of mindless escapism and claustrophobic paranoia in the wake of post-9/11 New York City. "Brite Nightgown" just amazes me; three choruses of existential dread, three vignettes of how New Yorkers encounter death, all set to the funkiest, most stomping, most booty-shaking groove this side of an early Prince album. With a cameo appearance from W.C. Fields. How great is that?
Pretty great. In fact, the more I listen to it the more I think it's potential Album of the Year material, easily Top 10, unless the rest of the year sees a spate of masterpieces.
Eric Lindell – Change in the Weather
Lindell’s major label debut is on Alligator Records, as solid a blues label as ever existed, but don’t be fooled. Although loosely based on the blues, these songs are blue-collar roots rock, more Los Lobos than Howlin’ Wolf. And that’s just fine. Lindell has the blue-eyed soul man shtick down pat (sounding at times like Gregg Allman), he plays swamp guitar like John Fogerty, and his loose, rockin’ band plays these well-written originals as if their lives were hanging in the balance. Great stuff.
Milton and the Devils Party – What Is All This Sweet Work Worth?
That’s Milton as in John, author of Paradise Lost. What else would you expect from a band made up of English professors? So it’s egghead rock, but the emphasis is at least on the rock, and these guys wear their influences proudly, whether they come from the musical world (a vocalist who sounds like Elvis Costello, and a power pop sound derived from The Kinks), or the literary world (the Bible, where “Heathen Eden” recounts the story of the Fall from an, uh, slightly more modern perspective, and Graham Greene, whose The End of the Affair gets quoted). There’s a bit of leering misogyny that is offputting for me, but even on a throwaway like “Perfect Breasts,” they still manage to steal the chord changes from “All Day and All of the Night” while singing about “working out the kinks.” All is forgiven.
Scotch Greens – Professional
Lots of bands have combined elements of country and bluegrass music with raw punk energy. Scotch Greens are unique in that they combine the country/bluegrass elements with some headbanging sludge that is right out of Metallica or Korn. It’s heavy metal, y’all. I’m not a big fan of headbanging sludge, but it’s kind of fun to imagine guys with banjos whipping their long hair around to tunes about drinkin’ by the river.
Willie “Big Eyes” Smith – Way Back
Willie played drums for Muddy Waters and harmonica for Bo Diddley, so it’s not too surprising that “way back” takes the time machine to Chicago circa the mid-‘50s, when Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf were tearing it up. Blues legends Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton, no strangers to Muddy’s band themselves, help him out, and the mix of originals and covers from Muddy, Jimmy Reed, and Sonny Boy Williamson sounds exactly like what you would expect – raw, electric, and rockin’. Willie’s a little weak in the vocal department (could be why he was a drummer all those years, although pushing seventy probably doesn’t help), but sonically this album is a stomping joy.
Sun Ra – Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Lowways
Sun Ra claimed to be from another planet. It’s hard to argue with him. He incorporated elements of Egyptian mythology and science fiction into his songs, led a big band long after big bands had gone the way of the Egyptian roc, and played ringmaster to a stage show that featured plate twirlers and fire eaters. It was just your basic three-ring jazz circus.
These two 1958 albums, recorded at the height of the staid and proper Eisenhower administration, must have blown some minds. They still do. Sun Ra plays spooky flying saucer keyboards, the reed section of John Gilmore and Marshall Allen anticipates the free jazz experimentation of Ornette Coleman by a couple years, the Arkestra plays instruments such as solar bells, solar drum, and space lute, and everyone chants in unison, “Rocket Number Nine/Take off for the planet Venus.” Those are the words. For almost seven minutes. Far out, Wally. Far out, Beaver.