Apologies for the long absence. Life.
Before we get to these reissues I reviewed in the pre-Christmas season, let’s take a moment of silence to mark the passing of the Guelph Mercury, where my column has run for the past 15 years (about one-tenth of the paper’s lifespan, as it turns out). I’ll continue to write for its sister paper, the Waterloo Record (who graciously commissioned my column in the first place, and continue to edit it).
If I told you Karin Krog was the most important Norwegian jazz singer of all time, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that wouldn’t hold much water. I didn’t know anything about her either, before this 2015 anthology. But now I want to know everything.
Her story starts in the early ’60s, when she became the first Norwegian jazz artist to release a full album. She’s an alluring vocalist when she plays it straight, and attracted some of Europe’s finest players, including saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the ECM crowd, as well as Americans like Dexter Gordon and Archie Shepp. Pretty soon she started diving off the deep end, flirting with electronics and tape manipulation of her voice, and being one of the few vocalists to hang with free jazz players. It says a lot about her that the covers here are of Herbie Hancock (“Maiden Voyage”), Bobbie Joe Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”), John Coltrane (“A Love Supreme,” with lyrics taken from a poem in Coltrane’s liner notes) and Joni Mitchell (“All I Want”).
Representing such a large body of work—with detours into experimental soundscapes in between jazz fusion and pop covers—is not easily achieved, but compiler Pat Morgan does a masterful job of capturing all sides of Krog and sequencing it in such a way that it all makes sense somehow: from small acoustic combos to ’70s fusion to the soprano sax and DX-7 keyboards of the ’80s to tracks with just prepared piano and electronically altered voice.
Krog is alive and well: she’s 77 and still making music; her latest album was in 2013. This is hardly the end of her story, but for North American listeners, it’s a beguiling beginning. (Dec. 17)
Stream: “All I Want,” “Maiden Voyage,” “Just Holding On”
That title is, to put it mildly, a bold claim, especially for someone who’s not a household name—and someone who’s not a musician, whose name is not Chuck Berry, who’s not even an African-American musician. Sam Phillips’s main claim to fame is that a young, naïve Elvis Presley once walked into his Memphis studio and made his first recordings there for Sun Records, Phillips’s label. Presley soon moved on to the big leagues, but that studio and label also gave birth to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas, and was witness to early recordings by Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King—and Ike Turner, who played piano on “Rocket 88,” recorded by Phillips in 1951 and considered the first rock’n’roll recording.
There’s even more to the Sam Phillips story than that précis, and it can all be found in Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography (I reviewed it for Maclean’s here), released in November, for which this compilation was assembled as an incredibly valuable companion. That’s even more true because the Sun Records catalogue, having been carefully guarded by the fiercely independent Phillips for years, has not always been widely available or assembled well. This comp provides an overview of Phillips’s overarching philosophy: he wanted to open his studio doors to working-class voices both black and white who didn’t have access to “proper” studios. So we hear white hillbillies, black bluesmen, R&B shouters and everything in between—in other words, the birth of rock’n’roll, captured raw—mistakes were purposely left in—and drenched in reverb.
If you’re younger than, say, 60, Elvis Presley might not mean much to you; it’s easy to see him as a larger-than-life pop icon, a symbol of excess and/or a joke. But listening to him in this early context, informed by his peers, before he was a professional entertainer, is to marvel at what a striking, electrifying and undeniably unique vocal presence he was. His success and historical importance was not a fluke of time and place; it was due to raw, natural talent (and, of course, race; it’s impossible to imagine an African-American in that time becoming as revered as Elvis). And yes, there is one track here from the legendary Million Dollar Quartet: Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins singing “I Shall Not Be Moved” around a single piano during an impromptu session that gained mythical status.
Sun Records is about more than just the big names, however, and this comp gives equal space to the likes of one-man-band Joe Hill Louis, the UFO-chasing Billy Riley, the wild harmonica of Jimmy and Walter, the gospel harmonies of the Prisonaires (actual inmates, and the focus of one of the book’s best stories), the eccentricity of Harmonica Frank, and the magnetism of Roscoe Gordon. You will never find yourself fast-forwarding to the Johnny and Jerry Lee tracks out of boredom. Guralnick’s extensive liner notes—he compiled the album himself—make extra sure of that. (Dec. 10)
Stream: Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – “Rocket 88,” Jimmy and Walter – “Easy,” Rufus Thomas – “Tiger Man”
Van Morrison has been incredibly prolific during the more than 50 years he’s been in the public eye (he turned 70 this year). Unlike many artists whose solo careers are a pale imitation of the inspiration that first struck them when they were part of a gang of friends, Morrison’s long career has featured many intriguing twists and turns. Which means that though the average fan probably knows that he had hits even before “Brown-Eyed Girl,” it’s often forgotten that “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” are actually credited to Them, the band he joined when he was 19 years old in Belfast. Them lasted three short years, captured on this three-disc collection that compiles most everything they ever recorded: two albums, all their singles and B-sides, and some demos and radio performances.
Them is not just a historical footnote, a stepping stone to Morrison’s later triumphs. This is a group as good or better than the Rolling Stones of the same era, a blues-based garage band par excellence. Morrison is young, hungry and full of bile, snarling like Howling Wolf and pushing the recording levels into the red. The musicians behind him are excellent students of American R&B: the arrangements have genuine soul, never succumbing to the youthful (and British) temptation to steamroll over everything. They tackle blues and jazz standards (“Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Stormy Monday”) but also have the cajones to reinvent contemporary hits like James Brown’s “Out of Sight” and Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” The originals are just as strong: “Gloria,” of course, but a track like “My Lonely Sad Eyes” would be just as at home on classic Morrison solo records like Moondance or Tupelo Honey.
The disc of extras here is, as expected, for serious completists; only one track, “Mighty Like a Rose,” isn’t duplicated elsewhere in the collection. But seeing how the last Them collection has been out of print for more than 15 years, and how revelatory many of the tracks here can be even for this mild Morrison fan, this proves there is indeed gold in Them thar hills. (Dec. 17)
Stream: “I Can Only Give You Everything,” “Out of Sight,” “My Lonely Sad Eyes”
In an article titled “Hip hop is the new dad rock,” Time Out London described an event called “Fun DMC,” which is “a family hip hop party where kids aged between three and eight jump around to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around.’ ” Certainly, the generation who grew up in the 1980s and early ’90s, a.k.a. “the golden age of hip hop” (something Vince Staples, of the class of 2015, took public issue with recently) now clings to the music of its youth just like any Baby Boomer does their CCR or Fleetwood Mac records, which are as out of step with modern rock as LL Cool J is with Kanye West.
Few hip-hop records, however, get the deluxe reissue treatment. The only surprise about this debut album by A Tribe Called Quest is that it didn’t get an overhaul before it turned 25 years old. Other than Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan—both of whom continue to perform somewhat regularly—Tribe is the only hip-hop group of that era that still commands mass appeal, the only one whose rare reunion performances are considered major events.
Their second and third albums, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, marked their commercial peak. But the consistency of those records also mean that they sanded off some rough and playful edges that abound here, where they throw tympani rolls and singing frogs over a beat, title a song “Pubic Enemy,” and drop sitars, the French national anthem and Lou Reed samples in the mix, while rapping about how “I don’t eat no ham and eggs coz they’re high in cholesterol!” Maybe that adventurism flew out the window once harsher copyright enforcement limited sampling (see also: Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique), but lead MC Q-Tip is more animated here than he before his smoother flow would become his trademark later on.
The added tracks here, featuring a Pharrell Williams new-wavish reworking of “Bonita Applebum” and J. Cole’s limp, jazzy take on “Can I Kick It,” do nothing to enhance the originals—but the bottom-heavy remastering is a vast improvement over that scratchy CD you have on your shelf. (Dec. 10)
Stream: "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," "Can I Kick It," "Youthful Expression"