- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 13 December 2011
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings "Soul Time" Daptone Records
If there's another band in the world making more authentic old-fashioned rhythm and blues music, I don't know about it. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have the market cornered. They're still making songs with "Parts One and Parts Two." That's a practice I'm most familiar with by the likes of James Brown. And this makes sense as Jones and Brown are both from Augusta, Georgia. Maybe there's something in the Savannah River that runs through that town making folks funkier than others. Of course, I'm from that town too, but maybe I was absent on the day they passed out the funk genes. I was probably home in bed with flu-like allergies from the flowering golf course. Anyway, taste is not a common trait in soul music these days as you may have noticed. It seems like a simple enough formula. You just make truthful music (whatever genre you choose, actually), and record it without all the trappings of today's "schlock and roll." You'd sooner find a polite shopper in Wal-Mart on Black Friday than legitimately good taste in today's rhythm and blues scene if there were one to find taste in. Jones and her band may be it, at least on a global scale. And they've gone global, I can assure you. I can't wait to see what they do with My Morning Jacket on stage this Friday in San Francisco. Luckily, I got a little primer in the form of "Soul Time" to hold me over until then. It was released on that same Black Friday, but you couldn't have gotten a copy at Wal-Mart even if you wanted to risk your health and safety to do so. "Soul Time" was part of last week's abbreviated Record Store Day, a party to which Wal-Mart and its clones in their various disguises were decidedly not invited. "Soul Time" is a party in and of itself. Let us rejoice.
I enjoyed last year's heralded "I Learned The Hard Way," but it wasn't my favorite work from the soul giants. The songs were strong enough, but there wasn't anything on the record that grabbed me with the vehemence that some tunes on "Naturally" did. That may be partially due to chronology and sentiment as "Naturally" was my introduction to the band's work. It made an impression, that's for sure. Since then, they've released two outstanding full-length LPs, but nothing that measured up to my first experience. Until "Soul Time," that is. The record is made up of songs the band has been playing live for a while now according to the sparse liners on the back cover. Somehow, none of them have been officially released on a Jones record until now. It was worth the wait because this is the funkiest I've ever heard the group get. These grooves have the energy and stamina to keep you moving all night if you're a dancer, and the musicianship and class to keep you captive as a listener. I fall squarely in the latter category, we can all be thankful for that this holiday season if nothing else. I do know that the lone cover on "Soul Time," a restrained take on the already subtle title track from Shuggie Otis' classic "Inspiration Information," was released on a compilation a while back. So, maybe some of the others have seen the light of day too, and I just don't know about it. Regardless, it's nice to have them all in one place. The record feels like a cohesive unit even if it was cobbled together from various sessions. And the recording itself is as timeless as you'd expect from Jones and her crew by now. I don't know how they do it, but it's not my job to. What's confusing to me is that they seem to be the only ones interested in or capable of making these types of sounds. I mean, they use vintage equipment from the floor up, we all know that. But there's more to it than old instruments and recording to tape. Surely, they're not the only band doing that. So, what is it? How are they getting it? A Motown documentary from a few years back showed the Funk Brothers joking about the mystery of the "Motown Sound." They're take on it was: everyone has been wondering for decades how the label found such a definitive sound, listeners crediting the room the songs were recorded in, the tools used for those recordings, the instrumentation chosen, etc. But no one ever thought to credit the players themselves. Maybe it's just that simple. The band is clearly enthusiastic about what they do, and they seem to have come by it honestly. Maybe they're channeling ghosts of soul music past. I'm glad someone is. I can imagine someone using the Kings' vintage sound as a knock against them, making some argument about originality or the lack thereof. But, to me, making honest, no-frills soul music with not much but your natural talent and your instruments to support you is about as original as ideas get in 2011. No one else seems to have done it. Shine on, Sharon! I'm with you.
Unfortunately, the Dap-Kings don't seem to spend too much time or money on their vinyl releases. That could all be part of the aesthetic. Maybe a retro-styled recording with the attendant vintage packaging would seem a little silly on a heavy, pristine slab of wax. And, to be fair, the music sounds just fine on a regular old record with some cloudy visual spots on it. The silent parts are deeply quiet as is so there's not much to complain about. And furthermore, the records are very affordable by today's standards. The only time I've known the band to go the "super-fan, collectors' route" was for Record Store Day proper in April when they released a 7" box set containing the songs on "I Learned The Hard Way." It may have sold out, but I remember it being expensive. If memory serves, it was in the $75 range which really does fly in the face of the band's image to this point. They always provide download coupons and "Soul Time" is no different in this respect. It's a high impact little slab of goodness, recorded with integrity, and performed with some guts and fire. If you haven't been converted, "Soul Time" is a fine intro. If you're already in the fold, you should have this record already. They released a CD version too for some reason. Get the vinyl version and eat at the table with the adults this holiday season. Cheers.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers "Kiss My Amps Live" Reprise Records
Seeing Tom Petty play live is a real kick in the pants. Always has been. But, recently, things have been a little different. Tom seems to be mining the same territory that makes Ozzy so endearing as an onstage character while Mike Campbell has fully embraced his status as a Rock Guitar God. And you get the feeling that Tom's just an all around good guy. You wish maybe that he was your uncle. I'm not casting any aspersions on his parenting ability, I just think I'd be more comfortable with him as my uncle than I would be with him as my dad, maybe. Especially with his developing case of early onset Ozzy-itis. And "Kiss My Amps Live" is a fun little document that displays Tom's good guy persona right alongside Campbell's new found comfort as a six-string gun slinging bandit guy/dude/man. You see, "Amps" is a vinyl only release specific to November's scaled back version of Record Store Day. I did my whole routine, again, but I didn't have to be up so early this time around. I only got to the record store half an hour before opening this time, and I had plenty of time to pick up all I wanted. I did notice, while shopping for things that I ended up not wanting, that every title I arrived early to get sold out before I left. So, if you're a vinyl loving Tom Petty fan, I'd advise you to give your favorite local independent retailer a ring and see if they have any copies of "Amps" left in stock. If not, Ebay might be your friend. It looks like there are plenty out there, and the prices aren't exorbitant. Yet. There were only 5,000 made. Tom and the Heartbreakers got behind a good cause, and gave their fans a rare treat in the bargain. Everybody wins, and Tom's swell guy reputation stays intact. For people that don't see the value in supporting local small business, events like Record Store Day don't mean much. But if you're keeping an eye on what's happening around the good ol' U.S. of A., you may want to buy this one based on principle alone. Then, find a true Heartbreakers fan and give it to them if you don't really want it. They'll be glad you did, I can vouch for that.
These tracks, except for "Sweet William" which was recorded in 2008, were recorded during last year's stellar "Mojo" tour. I caught it in Oakland, and Tom blew the doors off the arena. Carlos Santana sat three rows behind me and he thought so too, I could tell. He may have been taking notes on Campbell's technique. Seriously, the guy has lost his dreadlocked mind. The band performed a little mid-show mini-set of new tunes from "Mojo" which was surrounded by his formidable back catalog of greatest hits. As one might expect, the "Mojo" material was not as well received as "Free Fallin'," but the material is strong none the less. "Kiss My Amps" is a testament to that. The material is a little more straight ahead blues based rock and roll than the jangly Byrds-inspired fare of the band's salad days. The "Mojo" material is pretty muscular, mostly because of Campbell's mania. I mean, "I Should Have Known It" is full on crotch rock resplendent with crunchy fuzz riffs and all. "Takin' My Time" too. That one wouldn't be at all out of place in a Yardbirds set which makes sense as I saw Petty cover that band a few years back in Berkeley. He seems to be taking the Dylan route and regressing to simpler song structures and progressions which gives his band ample room to spread out and do their thing. Theirs is a glorious thing. The only significant deviation to that rule is on "First Flash Of Freedom" which is a bit of a waltz kind of along the lines of the Allman's "Dreams," but not as well conceived. For my money, they could have replaced that tune with another blues number and I'd have been even more inspired. That last statement probably won't do much to unsettle Petty. The verdict is in: that guy won... at everything. He stood up to the record companies, he maintained his artistic integrity, and got rich in the bargain. And his band is on fire. Amongst the best out there. For crying out loud, we haven't even mentioned Benmont Tench in this article and he's probably the finest keyboardist in the rock and roll game, now. And he makes good on that promise throughout "Amps," especially on "Sweet William." I reckon this record falls in the "EP" category as it's relatively brief containing only seven songs. That may not have been worth mentioning before you could cram two hours of filler onto a compact laser disc, but "Amps" seems decidedly brief by today's standards. To me, it's a spark plug of rock and roll goodness, no filler required. And to think that you have to get it on vinyl if you want get it at all! Tom's on record along with Neil Young as being devout vinyl enthusiasts that believe their work can only truly be appreciated in this format. They both warn that Blu Ray has the potential to change all that. I say "we'll see."
"Kiss My Amps" is a fun package based mostly on musical content alone. But the cover photography is cool too: black and white front cover shot of a bunch of old amps with a live shot of the band in action on the back. That's about it, really. I'd say it's worth picking up the vinyl version, but that's the only choice on the menu here so that makes things a little easier for me, I guess. The record did come with a download coupon for a high-resolution download which is surprising to me, but welcome. The single disc is not spectacular, but it sounds great. The recordings are crisp and clear, especially considered they were made in basketball arenas. You won't have a hard time hearing the band, I promise. This one is limited and numbered. I got 000339 so you can have your pick of any besides that one. This one will fit nicely alongside my copies of "Wildflowers" and "Echo" which are my fave Petty records. I may have to circle back for "Mojo" too after getting a taste of "Amps." I can't recommend it enough.
Shabazz Palaces "Black Up" Sub Pop Records
I love good hip-hop music. Luckily, I'll never have to take out any loans to buy all the good work that's out there. That's because I conservatively estimate that approximately 1% of what's released is worth hearing. A little less than that is probably worth owning. But I'm nothing if not persistent. I've always got my ear goggles on in search of the next life changing groove. I mean it. I go nuts for good hip-hop. I wear out a prime discovery much more so than I do any rock and roll records as a general rule. I don't know why that is, but I'll theorize that the lyrical content of a good hip-hop song bears repeated listening more gracefully than does a guitar solo. Kanye West's last solo record freaked me out with its awesomeness, but I didn't wear it out so maybe I'm just beyond all that now. I haven't gotten stuck on any one particular work for an appreciable amount of time in what seems like decades. There's a lot to get to, and times a-wasting. Oddly enough, I don't know that I've ever heard the first note of music that Lil' Wayne has created. I've worked in fitness facilities so that must be false, but I can't recognize his stuff. I'm much more interested in what's slightly off center, and that led me to Shabazz Palaces. I saw a short PBS documentary recently about the still thriving Seattle music scene, and they were in it. They're the first hip-hop group ever signed to Sub Pop Records. That's a ringing endorsement so I picked up their first full-length, "Black Up." I don't regret it, nor am I standing on my roof screaming its praises at random passersby. I like it just fine, I guess. It's a small victory.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from this one. I went in blind, basically. The group was featured quite briefly in the aforementioned documentary, but there were some interesting sounds coming out of their quick segment. At least that's how I remember it. It was late, and I was already in the bed. Perhaps my desire for THE next big discovery colored my ears' perception. There's nothing inherently offensive about this record at all (unless you can't handle the language in which case you'd best avoid hip-hop like cigarette addiction), it's just not blowing the doors off my apartment. I will say that it's a huge relief to hear a good rap record with some throw-back production values which only means that the tracks aren't too busy. The beats stutter around electronically like the kids all love these days, but it works here for the most part. You can actually hear the MCs rhyme without the ubiquitous hip-hop noise layers that make me feel like I'm having a seizure. I'm not suggesting that this is a retro-record. It's not. The sounds are modern, there just aren't so many of them. We're not talking "Paid In Full" sparse or anything, we're just saying that the sounds are of a manageable number and that they're integrated into a bigger soundstage, not scattered willy-nilly all over the place to keep some kid's rapidly receding attention for an extra two seconds. I've not really dug too deeply into the lyrical content on "Black Up," but it seems a little less playful than I expected after a little research showed that the main Shabazz guy used to be in the jazzy-fun Digable Planets. I don't remember that group being anything other than laid back, rapping about their hair and the like. That was a long time ago, and an artist has the right to explore whatever themes and sounds he/she wants, right? That's why they're making the art, and we're talking about it. "Black Up" is just a little heavier than I was expecting, that's all. And furthermore, there's still some youthful exuberance to be uncovered in songs with titles like "Endeavors For Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said You Were Not Here I Saw You Though)." Has there ever been another song title requiring a period in it? "Those crazy hip-hoppers are at it again, Maude. Make sure the screen door is latched." I'm gonna get plenty of play out of this one if for no other reason than it's something a little different in a genre I truly value. And you might as well hop on board if you haven't already. Hip-hop, in case you've been living on a desert island, buried in the sand to your neck with a bucket over your head with a blindfold on and earplugs in, is not going away. It's influence can't be overstated at this point. History may show that it was more influential than the first rock and roll wave. In fact, that may be so obvious that I seem delusional. I'm okay with it. I'm having a hard time letting go. Rock and roll will always be vital to me, but the rest of the world seems to have forgotten all about it. Oh, well. More fans for Shabazz Palaces, I guess. Things could be worse. Somehow.
This is a neat little vinyl package. The cover is textured in a strange kind of way. I don't quite know how to get the vibe across without the benefit of textile sensation to work with. The band's name is printed in smooth black lettering on an all black background. Words are shiny, background is a sort of matte finish. Part of the cover's charm is that it's not sturdy, it's flimsy and flops around some. The wacky song titles are printed on the red inner sleeve along with a couple of production notes. By that, I mean a producer's name, and the name of the studio where the work was done. That's about it, folks. A digital download coupon was included which is cool. The record itself is of pedestrian weight, and it's a little cloudy visually. But it sounds just fine. Like I say, there are a few blessed holes in the sound which would expose an overly active noise floor, but I didn't hear a single tick or pop after repeated listens. I'm happy to have this one. It's affordable so check it out if you're an intrepid hip-hop archaeologist. I'm sure the guys could use your support, and you might play a role in changing the face of hip-hop if records like these catch on. Maybe. Or maybe I should wake from this cloudy dream, give in, and start listening to whoever that little hip-hop guy is on all the beer commercials they keep showing during football games. Or not. Nope. Definitely not. I'm sticking with Shabazz Palaces for now, thanks.
Wilco "The Whole Love" dBpm Records
Unwrapping a new Wilco record is akin to setting off a mysterious new set of fireworks. You don't know which way things are going so light the fuse and get away. Hope for the best. "The best" is, of course, subjective. Wilco fans are numerous at this point, and we've always been opinionated as far as which "version" of the band is most deserving of our support. Many of us prefer the more Straight Ahead and Rocking Wilco that has shown up on the last couple of full length releases. Especially the one that brought us "Sky Blue Sky." I am among them. Some of us are more into the Experimental/Borderline Avant Guarde Wilco that we last saw on "A Ghost Is Born." I visit this group often, and frequently question my allegiance to the former variety. Experimental Wilco put its toe in the water on "Being There" and was a fully functional unit by the time they unveiled "Summerteeth." The band's latest, "The Whole Love," is brought to us by Experimental Wilco. If you've been itching for some noisier, off center elements of this band's sound, then "Whole Love" will scratch that for you. I'm always curious to see what they're gonna do, and I'm always hopeful that they'll take me in an interesting direction. Trouble is, I'm mostly interested in Rocking Wilco, and it looks like I'll have to wait a while before that band pops in for a visit. Or not. You never know.
I'll admit to not being ready for "Summerteeth" way back when. In retrospect, the issue was a simple one: I came to the record with expectations. I was young. I was blown away by "Being There," and I wanted more. But I wasn't in the band so I had no input. Jeff Tweedy was, and he's still driving this thing, and he's yet to solicit my opinion on how to season his sonic stew. The man has an expanded palette, draws from deep and varied wells. The thing about it is, once I got over myself, "Summerteeth" was easy to embrace because the songs were so strong. They had some complex textures, but you could still get them across with an acoustic guitar and carry them with you if needed. One shot at "Shot In The Arm," for example, and you were stuck with that one for days. I've not had that experience with "The Whole Love." After repeated listens, album opener "Art of Almost" finally stuck, but not in the same way. The newer song is more plodding and searching. More plaintive, less fun, I guess. Now, "I Might" is a different story. There's some merriment involved, but you have to find your own way to the party. Lyrics about setting the kids on fire aren't for everyone, and they may not be for me depending on who's singing them, but I trust Jeff Tweedy. I don't think he's really gonna do it. Then again, the man's full of surprises as we've already established here. It speaks more to my tastes as a listener than it does as a commentary on Wilco, but for all the noise and the layering, the things that I like best about "The Whole Love" are the old-fashioned Vox organ sounds that we get on a couple of tunes, and guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche finally saying "to hell with it," and shredding like Metal gods. Their abilities have never been in question, and it's fun to hear them cut loose and get out of context a bit. It's also fun to have four sides of new Wilco material no matter what. I don't have to love it all. They're creating what will one day be seen more as a large body of work than as a couple of great records so I'm not panicking. It just feels like Tweedy was listening to some pretty far out stuff while writing "The Whole Love," and not all of it lends itself to his particular brand of magic. But it is his magic, and he can pull whatever he wants out of his hat. It's not always gonna be a rabbit, you can bet on that.
"The Whole Love" is Wilco's first release on their own new label. I was curious to see what that meant to the quality of their vinyl release as their former label, Nonesuch, turns out some fine, fine vinyl. I was confident that the quality wouldn't suffer and my confidence was rewarded with another stellar vinyl artifact for the collection. Two heavy, flawless records housed in a sturdy sleeve with high-quality inners and lots of artwork and liners. It also came with a CD of the album. I noticed that there was a "Deluxe Edition" which is no longer the exception, but is the rule for established artists now. The problem is that this "Deluxe Edition" was specific to the CD release and didn't include any vinyl, but it did include songs that are not contained on the vinyl release. I think that's wrong. The band released a limited edition 10" record with a couple of the bonus songs as a Record Store Day release on Black Friday which is cool, but it was another $15 on top of what I'd already paid for the full length. I'm not complaining about that because I am, after all, the one that bought it. Plus, I'm working on a pretty nifty little 10" collection and "Speak Into The Rose" is a nice addition on red heavy vinyl, but it would have been nice to have everything included on the "Deluxe Edition" on the vinyl release. That's just how I think things should be. Again, Tweedy didn't ask me. He threw it out there and I bought it. No regrets. Just anticipation for the next Wilco record, whatever that may involve...
Tom Waits "Bad As Me" Anti-
If Wilco is unpredictable as a rule, then Tom Waits is gloriously predictable in his unpredictability. And that's a rule you can bet the farm on. I mean, you know it's gonna get weird. It's been that way since "Swordfishtrombones" in 1983. Man, I get a kick out of imagining what his fans thought of that one at the time. I get even more of a kick out of imagining what any of the non-initiated thought of that one in 1983. Tom's done it his way and the fact that it landed him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a miracle to us all, including Waits himself. At first glance, his music bears no resemblance to Rock and Roll at all. To those of us who actually care about Rock and Roll (at this point we're about as culturally relevant as Betamax video tapes), he's an obvious choice for induction based on attitude alone, but with the talent and songwriting chops to go the distance too. Waits has distinctive eras as an artist, not unlike the Rolling Stones, and he's made albums all along the way that rank in my "Favorites Ever" list. "Bad As Me" is his first new studio album in seven years, and it's gonna stand up over time. I can tell already...
One of the things I was most excited about leading up to this release was the list of heavies that play on the record. Not that Waits needs the help, but having Keith Richards in your corner can't hurt come rocking time. He also drafted some players from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to help out with their horns, and Charlie Musselwhite does some damage with his harmonica too. Flea and Les Claypool share bass playing duties on various numbers while David Hidalgo provides some additional guitar work along with longtime Waits side man Marc Ribot. Add Augie Meyers to the mix on accordion and Vox organ, and I was salivating before first listen. And, as it turns out, I had good reason to do so. It's such a relief when it works out that way. So often, superstar contributions can distract from a sound as much as add to it, but this is Tom's world all the way. Keith Richards can't even steal the show from him, and that's saying something. Waits goes big right from the opener, "Chicago," and pilots this runaway train right through the heart of town into the square from there. The horns add a steam engine kind of feel to that song in particular while "Satisfied" is my current favorite overall. I'm an avowed Stones freak, and hearing Waits reference Jagger and Richards while the latter riffs away in the background is a treat in and of itself. There's a lot happening lyrically here too as evidenced on "Hell Broke Luce," a rocker about a recently returned soldier in the war (one of the wars). Like a lot of Waits' characters, the guy's in bad shape. But there's a little more of an edge to these lyrics. The humor a little darker, the subject decidedly more grim than what we're accustomed to from Tom. The effect is the same: shock, awe, and admiration. The man has done it again.
But this time he's done it with a really sweet vinyl package which has not always been the case. Some of his earlier Anti Records titles have been a little light on quality, let's say. The pressings poor, the records flimsy, the extras not so extra at all, really. This one's a single, heavy record with a fine pressing, a CD of the entire album, and a full-sized lyrics book with photographs and players' credits. It's a fun one to unwrap, and a blast to spend time with. The Waits/Richards duet (!) on "Last Leaf" would have justified the price for me, but there are twelve other strong songs in addition to that one to help you whittle away your day. I've not heard any mention of a tour behind this one which is too darned bad. But the work stands on its own, and it'll be in my heavy rotation for the foreseeable future. Seven years was a long time to wait. Let's hope Waits was as inspired making this one as I am listening to it. He won't be able to stay away so long if he was.