Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime

As a rule, I don't like singers who only perform other people's songs. We don't celebrate authors who simply re-tell other writer's stories, and we don't go to galleries to see paintings by artists who blatantly copy other artists, so why should we praise singers who only sing other people's songs?

Bettye LaVette has made me reconsider the value of my rule. LaVette does magical things to other people's songs. She finds things in the originals that none of us knew were there, and she reinvents the songs based on her discoveries.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On the surface, this album is similar to LaVette's first release on Anti Records. On closer listen, though, it feels totally different. This album seems darker and more painful than I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Almost as if LaVette raised her hell, and is now sitting in the aftermath, looking around at how different things have become.

The Scene of the Crime is unquestionably a soul record, but hints of rock and country flow through it. It might be because producer Patterson Hood and most of LaVette's session band are all members of alt-country heavyweights Drive-By Truckers, or it might be because LaVette understands all great music shares a common spirit that transcends categorization. Take a listen to Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" and you'll hear how LaVette found the soul inside a great a country song.

And don't even get me started on her rendition of Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers". This one gives me chills.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The liner notes follow the same basic theme as LaVette's last album: simple design, minimal use of color, a few stark photos, detailed credits, and an essay. The essay is well-written, and it gives me an appreciation for pretty much every person and place that was involved in the making of this record. On the downside, the photos -- mostly of the vintage studio gear from Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios -- are generic, and the striped back cover doesn't make any sense. I guess it's supposed to represent the stripes on a prison uniform, but it just looks like some kind of random, seizure-inducing optical illusion.

Listen if you like: Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Drive-By Truckers

If it were food, it'd be: a late-night shot of whiskey in a lonely Alabama dive bar


Celebration: The Modern Tribe

Three things about Celebration piqued my interest when I first heard of them: they're tight with TV On The Radio, they're on 4AD records, and they're local.

I was excited to hear TV On The Radio's David Sitek work as a producer instead of a band member; 4AD has one of the best track records of any independent label out there; and even though I'm sadly ignorant about the local Baltimore scene, I know we've got more than our fair share of really good bands.

Needless to say, I was very happy when I spotted The Modern Tribe on the shelf at the EPFL.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Celebration sits at a point midway between TV On The Radio and The Creatures. It has the relentless creativity and energy that both bands possess, and it combines the unusual-yet-catchy songwriting of the former with the driving percussion and horns of the latter.

The Modern Tribe gets better with each listen. My initial reactions were lukewarm, but I've been listening to the CD for a few weeks now. I put it in my stereo this morning, and I caught myself singing along with every song and getting more and more excited as the disc progressed. It's the same reaction I had to TV On The Radio's Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, which eventually became one of my very favorite albums of the past decade. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if The Modern Tribe ends up having the same kind of hold on me.

As soon as I'm done writing this, I'm heading over to Sound Garden to pick up a copy of The Modern Tribe. I guess that probably speaks louder than any of the words I've written here, doesn't it?

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is bizarre. It looks like some kind of stage set from an awards show or a bad '70s TV variety program. It's got the dancing girls and everything. The text is printed in a metallic gold foil, which is a very nice (and expensive) touch. The thing is, the cover isn't a very good representation of the music. I'm not certain what kind of artwork would best accompany the music, but it's not this. In fact, I almost skipped right over this on the EPFL's shelves, because I assumed it was some sort of dodgy compilation of party tunes.

Listen if you like: TV On The Radio, The Creatures / Siouxsie and the Banshees, PJ Harvey's later albums, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave

If it were food, it'd be: Stuffed jalapeno peppers


Can: Ege Bamyasi

If Can's Tago Mago hadn't completely blown me away, I wouldn't have given Ege Bamyasi a second listen. That's how much I hated it the first time I heard it. But I did listen again, and then I gave it a third listen, and a fourth... and I still hated it.

Eventually, I listened on some great headphones. I heard some nice production tricks and experimental ideas buried in the background. Nice production tricks do not make a great album.

After my sixth listen, I gave up and wrote this review. Needless to say, I'm unimpressed.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Tago Mago is a complicated and challenging album that undeniably rocks. It is one of the best CDs I've checked out from EPFL.

Ege Bamyasi sounds like its dumb little brother.

I'm surprised, because every review I've read says Ege Bamyasi is a great album, 5 stars, perfect introduction to Can, yada yada yada. I don't hear it, though. The band sounds disengaged and uninterested. The songs don't do anything or go anywhere. The improvisation is dull, and the composition is uninspired. It sounds as if Can couldn't decide between being accessible or experimental, so they compromised at some boring point in the middle.

"Sing Swan Song" has the same introspective naval-gazing blandness that characterizes too much of Radiohead's music from the past decade. "One More Night" sounds like a Fela Kuti jam with no fire or passion. "Soup" starts with another dull jam, then inexplicably disintegrates into five minutes of noise that has nothing to do with the first five minutes of the song. (For what it's worth, those five minutes of noise are the most interesting thing on the album, but even they devolve into the kind of generic free-form improvisation that marked the third-rate followers of people like Ornette Coleman and... well... Can.)

The last two songs, "Spoon" and "I'm So Green," are the best on the album. Both are very short and very poppy ("Spoon" was a top 40 hit in Germany), but what's really interesting is hearing how those two songs laid the foundation for the Madchester scene that popped up about 15 years later. It's easy to listen to "I'm So Green" and imagine the Stone Roses or Primal Scream playing it.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Great. Another essay by David Stubbs. This one is filled with gems like, "It was all part of Can's flight from occidental hegemony in rock music." Yeah, man... rock's occidental hegemony really pisses me off.

(For those of you who don't possess a Stubbsian vocabulary, an "occidental hegemony in rock music" basically means that all the rock bands of Europe and America were oppressing the poor, struggling rock bands from the rest of the world. Apparently, when Ege Bamyasi was recorded back in '72, Can was pissed off about the way the IFWR [the International Foundation of Western Rock] was secretly conspiring to crush all of the great Asian, African, and Eastern European rock bands that were on the verge of stripping the evil patriarchal Western Rock Gods of their power.)

Hey Stubbs: how's about I plant my foot in your occidental ass, motherfucker?

Anyway, the liner notes contain Stubbs' essay and a bunch of pictures of the band. The pictures are mildly interesting. The essay isn't. End of story.

Listen if you like: Radiohead's Kid A and/or Amnesiac, early Pink Floyd, Boris, experimental music that's not too experimental.

If it were food, it'd be: canned vegetables


Can: Tago Mago

Can is one of those bands that always lurked on the periphery of my musical awareness, but never received my undivided focus. I knew they were early innovators of experimental rock music. I knew that bassist Holger Czukay recorded some beautiful instrumental albums with David Sylvian. I knew I should listen to them, but I just never got around to it.

Now that I've checked out Tago Mago from EPFL, I know what I've been missing. This is a difficult album, but it is completely unique and undeniably awesome.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On first listen, I guessed that Tago Mago came out somewhere in the mid 1970s, when punk innovators like Wire and Television were proving that you didn't need mad technical chops to create vital and relevant musical experimentation.

I was way off. Can's first album came out in '69, and Tago Mago was released in 1971.

I can't even begin to describe what this sounds like. It's rock music, but it embodies the spirit of punk and the spontaneity of jazz. It's adventurous and experimental, even for a time when the musical world was filled with the adventurous experiments of artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. It's chaotic, but it holds together without ever exploding.

This is punk before punk existed. This is jazz without the stodgy elitism. This is rock without the constraints that normally define rock. This is, quite simply, everything that makes the greatest punk and jazz and rock so damned exciting.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I haven't read much of British rock critic David Stubbs' writing, but if his essay here is typical of his style, he should be banished to the dark recesses of romance novels and open-mic poetry. His words epitomize the pseudo-intellectualism that makes people despise music journalists. For example:

"There's a moment here when, so in synch are the band that the song actually levitates."

No, jackass, the song did not actually levitate. Your inability to use proper punctuation or sentence structure, however, did make my blood pressure rise.

Anyway. Stubbs' commentary on the album is rotten, but the essay by Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie clearly demonstrates a love for Can's music, and his story about jamming with 2/5 of Can is genuinely exciting. Best of all, he doesn't resort to any Stubbs-isms like "beetling basslines" or "impassioned vocals creating a mist of condensation."

(Here's some obscure music trivia I figured out from reading the liner notes: The name of the band The Mooney Suzuki comes from the surnames of original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney and his replacement, Damo Suzuki.)

Listen if you like: Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, Miles Davis' fusion experiments from the late '60s and early '70s, Zappa, Pink Floyd's early records, Wire, Television.

If it were food, it'd be: One of my co-workers turned me on to the fact that Huy Fong's Sriracha hot sauce is delicious with pretty much everything, including pizza, popcorn, veggie dogs, mac & cheese, and even peanut butter sandwiches. Tago Mago is like the unholy combination of Sriracha and peanut butter: it shouldn't make any sense, but it's utterly fantastic.


My Teenage Stride: Ears Like Golden Bats

It's been awhile since I've praised Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library for their music collection. I haven't been to any other libraries where I can walk in and find dozens of CDs by bands I've never heard (or even heard of), and nearly all of them will at least be decent.

It's not often that I write a really bad review of a CD I get from the EPFL. In fact, very few of the CDs I review end up at the bottom of my rating scale (earning a 1, 1.5, or 2). I wish the music on MySpace or iTunes had that kind of track record!

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
My Teenage Stride is Smiths-influenced indie pop, spiced with a splash of '80s one-hit wonders and simmered in a broth of The Beatles. All the songs are short, and like the early Cure records, My Teenage Stride focuses on hooks and melodies without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Nothing here is in the least bit original, but it's all written, recorded, and performed extremely well.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The multi-colored text on the cover gives a pretty good clue of what the music sounds like, but otherwise, the package is bland. There's nothing except for credits, some nature photos, and a quote that is presumably from one of the songs.

Listen if you like: upbeat indie pop or downcast 80's Manchester new wave. There's enough mope to catch the heart of twee fans, enough joy to please the bespectacled indie rock boys of Brooklyn, and maybe even enough Beatles for fans of Matthew Sweet and the Posies.

If it were food, it'd be: A Hershey's Special Dark bar.


Charles Mingus: Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus

Everybody from Elton John to Tom Jones has released a remix album, making them as ubiquitous (and unnecessary) as blogs and tattoos.

But what happened back in the days when the innovators of remixing were still crawling around with diapers full of poop?

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is one answer to that question. Mingus had proven his musical genius by 1963, so he decided to go back with a new band and revisit some of his earlier ideas.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'll be the first to admit I'm biased when it comes to Mingus. There has never been another jazz musician who rocked as hard as Mingus did. The man's music is as energetic and exciting as anything Zeppelin or Sabbath or (enter your favorite rock band here) ever did.

You might ask, "Chuck, why would you say that Mingus -- a man who didn't much care for rock music -- rocked?"

Making music that rocks has nothing to do with making rock music. The latter is a genre, and most of the music within that genre is actually pretty lame. The former is a state of mind that transcends all genres, and occurs when the musicians have completely let go and let their wildness take over.

This music is wild. These ideas were already explored on some of Mingus' greatest albums, but Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is still unique and original. The band is on fire, the arrangements are amazing, and the music is as adventurous as nearly anything the man recorded.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
When I was a kid and was home sick from school one day, my mom brought home a novel called This School Is Driving Me Crazy by Nat Hentoff. I liked the book and read it several times, but it wasn't until I began earnestly exploring jazz that I learned Hentoff was like the Lester Bangs of jazz. The liner notes here are pretty much what I'd expect from Hentoff writing about Mingus: a little overblown and a little melodramatic, but also passionate and enthusiastic and informed and deeply respectful of both Mingus the man and Mingus the musician.

Hentoff wrote, "(Mingus) is one of the most alive men I have ever known, and it is this commitment to living rather than only existing which makes his music so energizing and so insistently provocative." No words could nail the music on this record better than these.

A few more pictures would've been nice; otherwise, this is a strong package.

Listen if you like: powerful music, passionate music, wild music, alive music, music that rocks.

If it were food, it'd be: The first thought that came to mind was "a can of Red Bull," but that analogy captures such a small part of the album's greatness that it's actually a disservice. Really, this album is like a giant meal that encompasses every imaginable flavor, and leaves you excited for more. I've never actually eaten a meal that tastes like this music. Readers? Any ideas?


Daniel Lanois: Acadie

It must be bizarre to have countless platinum records -- critically acclaimed platinum records, nonetheless -- under your belt, yet be unknown to all but the most die-hard rock fans.

As a producer, Daniel Lanois is at least partially responsible for seminal albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, The Neville Brothers, and Dashboard Confessional. (Not often that you see Dashboard Confessional and Dylan on a list together.) But how about on his own? Can he make the same kind of magic when he's in control of every aspect of the music?

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The answer is, "not really." There are a few songs on Acadie that flirt with greatness, there are a few that are almost embarrassingly bad, and there are a bunch that sound like they came from a guy who spent a whole lot of time listening to The Joshua Tree.

Now, in Lanois' defense, he did spend a whole lot of time listening to The Joshua Tree. As the album's co-producer, that was his job. It's hard to say whether his influence had a dramatic impact on U2, or vice versa, but a lot of the songs on Acadie sound like Joshua Tree throwaways.

As for the good songs, I've had the bassline from "The Maker" stuck in my head since 1991 (the year I last heard Acadie), and for nearly 20 years I've been trying to figure out from what song it comes. If that doesn't qualify as a hook, I don't know what does. "White Mustang II" is a simple instrumental track that is solemn yet spooky. "Amazing Grace" is easily the strongest song on the record, and Aaron Neville's vocals make it one of the most interesting and impassioned versions of the gospel standard that I've ever heard.

Packaging: 0.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is one of the worst packages I've ever seen. The cover sports a cheesy '80s photo of Lanois standing in the snow with hair that looks like a cockatoo with a bad dye job. And the rest of the package is... well, it's nothing. No credits. No lyrics. No photos. No stories. Nothing. Just a note that you can read the credits at Lanois' web site, which is a lie as far as I can tell, because I couldn't find a single thing about who played on this record. If I'd spent $10 or $15 on this CD, I'd be pissed. There is no compelling reason to buy this. If you're interested in the music, just download the songs. (And that's coming from a guy who hates downloading songs.)

Listen if you like: U2 from the mid '80s, Peter Gabriel from the late '80s, Lanois' production style. There's a strong New Orleans sound on several of the songs, so if you like The Neville Brothers, you might enjoy this.

If it were food, it'd be: Gumbo and Guinness