Short Cuts 

Miles unearthed; Folds sans Five.

Live At the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time

Miles Davis

(Columbia/Legacy)

The most important aspect of this previously unreleased two-disc set, which was recorded at New York City's premier rock-and-roll venue of the time a month before the arrival of the nonpareil Bitches Brew, is that it marks the first time on non-bootleg disc for the legendary Miles Davis quintet (a sextet for this concert) of '69 and '70: Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor sax, Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on acoustic and electric bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. (Brazil's Airto Moreira supplies additional percussion.)

As '69 became '70, Davis -- a leading proponent or initiator of jazz's every metamorphosis after the late '40s, save avant-garde -- was sloughing off the once-revolutionary bebop sound he alone had dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdoms of rock and funk. Others tried to follow, but most stuck safely to the old school. Alternately derided and praised by contemporary critics, what Davis was doing is in retrospect quite evident: always listening to and one-upping himself.

Each disc of It's About That Time is a breathless, nonstop suite running approximately 45 minutes. Three of the tunes on this turning-point recording appear on both sets, with drastic changes evident. Such was the nature of Davis' improvisational approach, steeped as it was in the Charlie Parker aesthetic of unrestrained invention. Davis' fragmented, elliptical trumpet directs his band into ecstatic renditions of "Bitches Brew," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," and Joe Zawinul's "Directions," among others. Undoubtedly, few present at this concert, which was an opening gig for Steve Miller (!), had any idea that these unearthly sounds would affect American music ad infinitum. The hallucinogenic cocktail being served up for their astonished ears was distilled from the psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix, funky electric soul courtesy of James Brown, and re-Africanized jazz in the wake of pop bastardization. It was about time. -- Jeremy Spencer

Grade: A

Rockin' the Suburbs

Ben Folds

(Epic)

If I were Robert Sledge or Darren Jesse (the much-forgotten other two- thirds of Ben Folds Five), I'd be sending Mr. Folds several angry letters to the tune of "Why didn't you write songs like this for our last record?" Two years after the release of the musically ambitious but commercially underperforming final Ben Folds Five record, Folds has written what might be his finest batch of songs to date. And while the songs are recorded and performed well-enough on this solo foray, I find it hard not to miss Sledge's manic fuzz-bass work, Jesse's pounding drums (which have been replaced by a mixture of tame drum loops and Folds himself behind the kit), and the trio's quirky harmonies. But, quibbles aside, Rockin' the Suburbs is a really good record.

The album opens strongly with what should have been the lead single (instead of the overly witty title track, which is the album's only low point), the upbeat and catchy-as-hell "Annie Waits." But what truly shines is Folds' ability to write emotional pop ballads. The creepy "The Ascent of Stan" and the genuinely gut-wrenching "Carrying Cathy" are up there with Folds' best tearjerkers from Whatever And Ever Amen. And then there's Rockin' the Suburbs' highlight, "Still Fighting It." Only Ben Folds can begin a song with the lyrics "You want a coke?/Maybe some fries?/The roast beef combo's only $9.95" and turn it into a touching anthem about lost youth. Yeah, that other piano man, Billy Joel, only wishes he was this good. -- J.D. Reager

Grade: A-

Robert Pete Williams

Robert Pete Williams

(Fat Possum)

This is an uncharacteristically restrained release for the Fat Possum label. No photos of goose-stepping in a cotton field (remember the picture used for a T-Model Ford release a few years back?) or boasts of moonshine- induced intoxication (again a la T-Model Ford and several other Fat Possum artists who have indeed set some records for steady-state drunkenness in North Mississippi; it's not all mythology or record company hype -- these are some thirsty men). Instead, this is a soberly presented re-release of an album that originally appeared on the small Ahura Mazda label in 1971. The black-and- white photos and original cover and liner notes are all reproduced here with only the Fat Possum logo stamped unobtrusively on the CD's back cover to identify it as a new release on that label.

This album was recorded at Robert Pete Williams' small house in Maringouin, Louisiana, around Christmas 1970, but the performances and sound quality of the recording are anything but sloppy or lo-fi. Williams sings and plays guitar (both acoustic and electric) on 11 originals. Williams grew up around Baton Rouge and was convicted of murder in 1956 for shooting a man in a bar brawl. He was sentenced to life at the infamous Angola State Prison but was finally granted a full pardon in 1964, after which he returned to intermittent farming, recording, and live performing until his death in 1980. Williams' style was uniquely his own, sounding like few other country bluesmen. His guitar-playing, vocal delivery, and songwriting on this recording are characteristically eccentric, highly personal, and deeply passionate. No, Williams' music doesn't sound like the one- chord hill boogie that the Oxford-based label is noted for, but it does evoke an almost trance- like response in the listener. Nice going, Fat Possum. You've proved that it's okay to leave the corn liquor out of the marketing process and still release a good record. -- Ross Johnson

Grade: B+

It's the Black-Eyed Snakes

The Black-Eyed Snakes

(Chair-Kickers Music)

This funny little side project has two punch lines, one spiritual and one geographical. First one goes like this: This may be the finest Mormon-led white blues band of all time. Second one builds off the first: They are definitely the finest white blues band based in Duluth, Minnesota -- you know, where the Replacements played their first paying gig at the dawn of the 1980s. And the lead Mormon is none other than kindly parent Al Sparhawk of Low, indie-rock's most delicate band. Like I said, it's a funny little project, and I get off on the idea of an earnest Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at least as much as I dig the music, though both suffered from the transfer from stage to tape. So see 'em live if you ever get the chance. Sparhawk, aka "Chicken- Bone George," sits on a chair, howls through an old microphone, and leads his bass-less trio through a whistle-stop tour of pomo blooze: Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, sure, but also Moby and the Fall and originals as simple as stomping your feet. And their theme song is so addictive they usually play it twice. It's The Black-Eyed Snakes is currently available through Chair- Kickers Music, PO Box 600, Duluth, MN 55801. -- Addison Engelking

Grade: B+

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