Monday, November 17, 2003

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Despite the fact that money's been tight, I've managed to pick up an occasional CD here and there, and here's what I've been listening to lately.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to place an order with Columbia House, because they were running a buy one get three free deal. I figured I'd try to take advantage of this by getting four two-cd sets, three for $3.49 (the usual shipping and hadling costs) and one for $27, and wonder of wonders, I was able to! I'll pay for them eventually, I promise. I go back a ways with the House, and they're pretty good about letting you take your time paying them back, in my experience anyway.

First, after watching an chapter of Ken Burns Jazz on PBS a while back, I got really interested in the work of Dave Brubeck. I had only heard one of his pieces before, the "Unsquare Dance", in a Music Appreciation class at Western. I probably had heard other things, but didn't know what they were or who they were by at the time. Brubeck was a real pioneer and legend in jazz, especially for his use of unconventional time signatures, which earned him a lot of scorn early on, it seems. Anyway, I thought that if I could find some sort of fairly comprehensive collection of his work then I'd get it someday, and Sony/Columbia solved that problem for me by issuing its Essential Dave Brubeck. It's got most of the stuff that people usually associate with Brubeck, such as "Time Out" and "Blue Rondo A La Turk", and is consistently enjoyable throughout. It seems to offer as good an introduction to the man's work as you could hope to find, and while I'm sure there's more out there that's just as good, and I hope to find out someday, this will do for now. That darn Ken Burns- first he got me interested in Miles, Coltrane, and Billie Holliday- now he's got me listening to Dave Brubeck too.

Another in the Essential series that I'd had my eye on for a long time now was the Essential Sly and the Family Stone, another two-CD set that features almost everything you could want to hear by this great, groundbreaking funk-rock outfit. I've loved the music of Sly and his Family since I first heard their Greatest Hits album at age 11, and I began to hanker after a good Sly collection back when I had no turntable to listen to my SatFS albums on, and listened to CDs in my truck and at my job. Finally, this one came out, and while I wish it had a little less from There's A Riot Goin' On and perhaps a cut or two more from later, less prestigious releases like High On You and Heard You Missed Me, Now I'm Back, it's still a great set. I even discovered a tune that I hadn't paid much attention to, "Time For Livin' ", which originally appeared on Sly's first real flop record, Small Talk, and I don't own hence my unfamiliarity with the song. It would have been nice to have had some liner notes as well. Anyway, I don't have a job or a truck with a CD deck in it anymore, but I manage to stick it on at home occasionally anyway and "dance to the music". And you gotta love "Hot Fun in the Summertime", one of the most evocative and gorgeous songs I've ever heard.

Continuing my haul from the House, I also got Rhino's reissue of Randy Newman's 1974 masterpiece Good Old Boys, which came out containing a bonus disc of demos Newman did, titled Johnny Cutler's Birthday. Those familiar with Newman only through his film songs like "You've Got a Friend in Me" might be a bit surprised by the acerbic wit he displays in this song cycle about people from the South, and the perception of same. Beautifully produced and orchestrated, and featuring the infamous "Rednecks", which is not what it seems- or is it; the lovely and pathetic "Marie", the elegant "Louisiana 1927" (which I remember seeing him perform on Saturday Night Live, hence my purchase of this record long ago); "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)", which boasts tricky time signatures in its orchestration, and a personal favorite "A Wedding in Cherokee County", which casts its hillbilly subjects in a strangely sympathetic light. Plus it's funny as all get out. Good Old Boys is a dark, and darkly humorous record but it always holds up. I've been wishing for a copy on CD for quite some time now.

The last CD in my package was the most recent of the Bob Dylan Bootleg series, Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue. Taken from the legendary shows Bob played in between Blood on the Tracks and Desire, and arguably his last really fertile creative period, these shows were most notable for the musicians who backed and traveled with Bob, gypsy caravan-style- the likes of former Bowie sideman (and Bacardi Show Hero) Mick Ronson, a young T-Bone Burnett, Joan Baez, a enigmatic fiddler named Scarlet Rivera (who recorded a dull solo album inn 1977 that I used to own), Byrd-man Roger McGuinn, Ramblin' Jack Elliott (notably -and regrettably- absent from the recorded and filmed proceedings), Joni Mitchell and others. The whole thing had a circus-like atmosphere (or, as the liner notes put it, an "old-timey medicine show") and was filmed for posterity, with much of it making up the 1975 movie Renaldo and Clara, which I've never seen but am told it's almost unwatchable. Anyway, having only seen one clip from the movie, that of Dylan, in ludicrous white pancake makeup, singing "Tangled Up in Blue" as well as watching an edited TV special taken from this tour called Hard Rain (and being totally unimpressed, to the point where I still, to this day, have never owned a copy of the live album of the same name which was subsequently released), I was curious about this release, wondering perhaps if there was more to that whole extravaganza than I had previously heard, especially given that Ronson was involved. And my verdict? Well, it's better than I remember, but not as good as I had hoped. Ronson provides some meaty chords and I can slightly detect his influence in the arrangements, but mostly they barrel through each and every Dylan composition like the devil was chasing them with very little nuance or subtlety- kinda like his more recent tours, come to think of it. Dylan is in terrible voice as well, bellowing the words very loudly and off-key like he couldn't hear himself on the monitors. Still, the songs are so damn good in most cases that they survive the roughhouse treatment and shine through just the same. I've even come to like a song I had no use for previously, an early version of "Romance in Durango". There's also a bonus DVD of that very same "Tangled Up in Blue" performance that I've seen a thousand times and another, alternate version of Desire standout track "Isis", with a full band which we get to see about halfway through. It's a pretty good rendition, but it's missing the first few minutes and Bob is given to ridiculous theatrical gestures throughout most of it while wearing his whiteface. Oy. One thing that came from this event, and I'm really happy it did: after the Rolling Thunder tour ended, Roger McGuinn enlisted Ronson to produce and play on his next record, 1975's Cardiff Rose, which used most of the Rolling Thunder musicians as well and is a huge favorite of mine.

Mrs. B and the youngest Bacardi Offspring went shopping the other day, and came back home with some Christmas CDs, one of which, to my surprise, was The Beach Boys: Ultimate Christmas- a recent release which marries that well-known-and-loved 1964 Christmas album with the band's subsequent efforts at holiday fare, and I being a relatively recent convert to the Church of Brian Wilson hadn't heard a lot of it. There are numerous alternate takes of Beach Boys Christmas Album tracks as well but I was really chuffed, as our British friends say, to finally hear obscurities like "Child of Winter" "Winter Symphony" and "Santa's Got an Airplane", which are not as accomplished as the famous BBCA cuts but are still tuneful and fun. The other one they got was Santa Claus Lane by the newest teen-pop sensation (Disney's own) Hillary Duff which is slick and produced to a tee, but is still very catchy and upbeat and (when I'm in the mood) listenable. Don't tell anybody, OK?