Dropping his charismatic, rhythmic patter over bluesy piano and laid-back beats, Gil Scott-Heron was as much proto-hip hop as anybody. A political radical inspired by the multi-dimensional artistry of icons Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, Scott-Heron took his Tennessee blues background (he was raised in Jackson) up North, bringing Southern soul (and a casual wit) to coffee-house culture and cultivating a politicized jazz-soul sound that fit in nicely among contemporaries such as the Last Poets, Parliament-Funkadelic, and the then-nascent reggae scene.
Today, Scott-Heron sounds like an obvious godfather to politically inclined, cool-jazz hip-hop heads such as Common, Dead Prez, and Mos Def. That connection gives a commercial peg to the recent Scott-Heron reissue series undertaken by TVT, but the truth is that Scott-Heron's recorded output was hit-or-miss in his own time and so much of his music was so of-the-moment that it can't help sounding hopelessly dated today. Right?
Well, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron is a collection of spoken-word pieces originally released in 1978 that covers the post-Watergate climate of 1973-1978, and part of what makes the collection viable as an early 2001 reissue is how oddly relevant it is to the current political climate.
"H2O Gate Blues" -- which opens with the great Public Enemy-sampled line, "I'm sorry, the government you have elected is inoperative" -- portrays an America where "faith is drowning beneath that cesspool, Watergate." But remove the proper names and portions of it could have been written yesterday. If you didn't already know, what would you guess the following lyrics were about? "How much more evidence do the citizens need/That the election was sabotaged by trickery and greed?/And, if this is so, and who we got didn't win/Let's do the whole goddamn election over again!" And then there's Scott-Heron's "endless list that won't be missed when at last America is purged," which, in this 1973 performance, includes Strom Thurmond.
And, for equal opportunity outrage, there's a sequel that also speaks clearly to our present quagmire: "We Beg Your Pardon America (Pardon Our Analysis)," a diatribe against Nixon's pardon where the palpable disgust at the way the pardon system benefits the rich (no pun intended) is, of course, equally vital today. -- Chris Herrington
(Stony Plain Records)
Most people associate Maria Muldaur with her '70s hit, "Midnight at the Oasis." With her breathy siren whisper, long black tresses, and doe-eyed gypsy persona, she was the earth mother personified. Richland Woman Blues marks the first time she's done an album totally devoted to the seminal blues of the '20s and '30s. She was inspired to create this powerful work by a trip to Memphis she made a few years back, when she got down and dirty singing with a group of street musicians in a Beale Street alley, much as Memphis Minnie herself did. A later trip down the road to Walls, Mississippi, to visit that venerable blueswoman's grave sparked a desire to record these songs from the early masters.
On this, her 25th album, Muldaur's wispy warble has deepened and blossomed into a robust sexy mama growl that sounds like she was born to sing this amazing music. Accompanied by some of today's finest blues artists, Muldaur gives rich readings of these classics -- some well-known cuts, some culled from obscure field recordings, but gems one and all. As a young woman in New York City in the '60s, she was lucky enough to hear and sometimes play with some of these legendary performers, and it shows in her sensitive but faithful renderings of the songs. Favorites include Mississippi Fred McDowell's "It's a Blessing," with slide guitar and soul-sister vocals by Bonnie Raitt; Blind Willie Johnson's enigmatic "Soul of a Man," accompanied by Taj Mahal's signature Billy Goat Gruff vocals and guitar; and Roy Rogers' fabulous fingerpicking on Memphis Minnie's "In My Girlish Days."
With Richland Woman Blues, Maria Muldaur establishes herself as a serious blues artist in her own right and pays homage to the hard-living and hard-dying men and women whose blood, sweat, and tears are immortalized in this vital American art form.
-- Lisa Lumb
Frank Black & The Catholics
(What Are Records?)
If anyone in the history of post-punk ever needed a break, critically speaking, it's Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis/Frank Black). Ever since his groundbreaking and endlessly influential rock band the Pixies broke up in 1993 and Thompson embarked on his more conventional-sounding solo career, he's repeatedly been called a has-been and his records everything from disappointing to "pointless." But for all its differences with his admittedly more important work with the Pixies, the Frank Black catalog has some incredibly pleasing rock-and-roll moments, with more than a few of those on his latest record, Dog In the Sand.
Dog In the Sand has a more relaxed and fully developed sound than the previous two albums Black recorded with his band, the Catholics. This is thanks to more varied instrumentation, played by a much bigger lineup, one that includes two of Black's oldest associates, Joey Santiago and Eric Drew Feldman. Santiago, who played lead guitar in the Pixies, turns up on four tracks, including the epic "Robert Onion," one of the album's most rocking tracks. Feldman, a former member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band and Pere Ubu and who worked with Black on his first three solo albums, serves as the group's keyboardist. His presence is particularly valuable on tunes like "I've Seen Your Picture," where his thick, throbbing electric piano helps plunge the ballad into the depths of true melancholy.
Though it may not pack as much immediate wallop as the Pixies or his two previous, much rawer, Catholics records, Dog In the Sand proves to be a very rewarding record upon repeated listenings and may end up being one of Black's finest solo efforts. -- J.D. Reager
Throughout this second album Finley Quaye keeps one foot planted firmly in reggae while he forays into several other genres. But at some point his emphasis on diversity becomes a liability, resulting in an off-putting lack of focus and cohesion. Songs like "Spiritualized" and "When I Burn Off Into the Distance" sound like a more polished Ben Harper, while "Chad Valley" skitters about on spoken-word non sequiturs and fuzzed-out house dance beats. Sadly, Quaye never gets too far below the surface of rock or dance. He re-creates their sounds effectively, but he displays no knowledge of how or why they work.
Vanguard sounds best when Quaye sticks to reggae pop at its purest. On the opener, "Broadcast," his seemingly off-the-cuff lyrics about green peas and footwear are compelling in their rhythm and sound more than in their meaning. And in "Burning" Quaye tosses out absurd come-ons reminiscent of Prince's "Kiss" -- "You got to have humor," he sings, "to stand the rumor /You got to be jolly." Moments like these -- together with the album's occasionally breezy flow -- portray Quaye as an accomplished reggae musician. Unfortunately, he's still a student of most other genres. Maybe by his third album, he'll have either dropped the dilettante pretensions or have mastered them a little more completely. -- Stephen Deusner
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.