Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt,
(American Originals Records)
Talk about a triple treat! This little gem was recorded in September 1995 at the intimate Bluebird Café in Nashville as a charity show to raise money for the Nashville Interfaith Dental Clinic. Guy Clark's wife, Susanna, put the show together, and as she recounts in the liner notes, she just wanted the same bunch of ne'er-do-wells who regularly played around her kitchen table to perform (lucky woman!). She blithely asked for and got her wish.
The up-close-and-personal feel is evident throughout the concert, with the three artists shooting the breeze, telling tales, poking fun at each other, and just generally enjoying themselves. All the "hits" are here (Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," Clark's "Dublin Blues," and Earle's "Copperhead Road," among others), and I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. But with Van Zandt's death in 1997, I'd have to choose his rawbone rendering of "A Song For." This tune, which always seemed to me to be a premature obituary in song, could not be more poignant and powerful. The way he plays down its darkness by introducing the song as "a little ditty" makes it even more haunting and precious. But in a lighter vein, hearing Van Zandt tell the hilarious story of how he gambled his gold tooth away in a drunken moment is worth the price of the album alone.
Together at the Bluebird Café is a rare treasure indeed for committed fans but would also serve as a good introduction for those poor, unfortunate souls who somehow have never been exposed to these three great singer-songwriters.
-- Lisa Lumb
A certain fog-like sense of despair has crept under my chamber door lately. All of my friends are getting divorced, layed off, or diagnosed with polysyllabic maladies. And now that I'm too old and chickenshit to try anymore "bathtub Ecstasy," I am left to find solace in the latest Brit flavor-of-the-month to skip across the pond -- spoon-fed to us by the faceless, corporate juggernaut of hype. I'm just being cynical and I know my predilection for derision is the very problem. I am in desperate need of aching solemnity, and if my panacea is a group of over-publicized, pale British boys, so be it. Recently it's been Cold Travis and Doveplay, and now it's Starsailor.
The band's roots are fairly transparent: Elton John and Neil Young circa Tonight's the Night. But the most obvious debts are to the fragile balladry of Jeff Buckley and his dad, Tim (from whose 1970 album Starsailor the band took their name). The standout feature of Starsailor's debut release is the dulcet voice of 20-year-old James Walsh -- a dash of Freddy Mercury and a soupçon of Bono diluted with two parts Thom Yorke. But, seriously, the lad's pipes are truly seraphic. I choose my next words carefully: This music is absolutely transmutative. Amid all these gloomy, doomy days, these songs sidle up and insinuate themselves into your life like old friends encouraging you to buck up fer chrissakes. Bad times become good times.
It's hard to believe that this band dropped from the womb less than a year-and-a-half ago with instruments perfectly tuned and songwriting honed. Or that a 20-year-old could write "Stay by my side/And the cynics won't get in our way/Don't you know you've got your daddy's eyes/And your daddy was an alcoholic." The sweeping epic style of the music might seem impersonal were it not grounded by the romantic realism of Walsh's well-crafted lyrics -- he even gilds his articles with emotional resonance. So for now, I'll cherish this sack of sweet, sad songs and try hard to believe the album's title.
-- David Dunlap Jr.
Lee Perry & Friends
The cult around Jamaican producer/singer Lee "Scratch" Perry is so intense that it's engendered an after-the-fact discography that seems to have no end. Perry cut over 2,000 sides during his '60s and '70s heyday, and it sometimes seems the number of Perry compilations is itself approaching that figure. And unless you're a fanatic, deciding between them can seem daunting -- which is where this double CD comes in.
A Live Injection isn't really a definitive career overview. It's way light on the late-'70s material recorded at Perry's legendary Black Ark Studio, which is adequately covered on the three-disc Arkology. But it splits the difference between that overlong and somewhat redundant box and the endlessly playable late-'60s/early-'70s single discs Some of the Best and The Upsetter Collection, which many Scratch fanatics prefer. (A Live Injection cribs five tracks each from that pair.)
What all this means, the occasional useless American R&B remake (Busty Brown's "My Girl," Hortense Ellis' "Just One Look") notwithstanding, is a sumptuous combo platter. You get funky, MGs/Meters-inspired organ instrumentals (the Upsetters' "A Live Injection" and "French Connection"), proto-rap "deejay" cuts (I. Roy's "Space Flight," Dennis Alcapone's "Africa Stand"), a couple of dubs (such as Perry's "Bush Weed"), and, crucially, a fistful of great songs. Perry's "People Funny Boy" cemented the reggae beat (as opposed to those of ska or rock steady) in 1968. Dave Barker's "Shocks of Mighty" is the greatest James Brown homage ever. Junior Byles' "Curly Locks" remains the definitive Jamaican slow-jam. And the Gatherers' "Words of My Mouth" may well be Perry's greatest production, a snaking gaze into a pitch-black heart of darkness.
A Live Injection may not be a definitive career overview, but it's as close as anyone has come to providing one.
-- Michaelangelo Matos
"I'm cocky, but I'm good!" was an often-heard phrase at 1500 North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, site of Ernie K-Doe's Mother-In-Law Lounge. K-Doe himself coined the saying somewhere around the time he proclaimed himself "Emperor of the Universe." But until late last year, when Fuel 2000 released this 18-track collection of K-Doe tunes, stateside fans had to scour used-45 bins for the Minit label originals or content themselves with the measly 12-track compilation that Mardi Gras put out in '99.
Absolutely the Best is aptly titled: The hits are here, including "Mother-In-Law," "A Certain Girl," and the sublime "Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta," which shines in its newly remastered state. (The horn intro, soaring background vocals, and K-Doe's immodest storytelling put this cut over the top.) There are dance numbers ("Popeye Joe"), tearjerkers ("Waiting At the Station"), novelty songs ("Get Out Of My House"), and rhythmic romps ("Wanted: $10,000 Reward") aplenty, each track another chapter in the K-Doe legend.
Too bad Ernie himself didn't live to see this collection. You can almost hear him in the background, muttering, "Absolutely the best? Damn right!" After all, as the good folks at Fuel 2000 realized, he was cocky -- but he was good.
-- Andria Lisle