This month's column serves as a test of my oft-doubted ability to say a lot about a whole bunch of great new roots finds in as few words as possible. Well, here goes...
I'm a sucker for rockabilly bands with a Brooklyn zip code. So you could have spied the double thumbs-up coming from way across the East River the day The Hangdogs' crackling Same Old Story (Crazyhead), stumbled off the L train and into my East Village mailbox. A meaty, slapback-laden chaw of anthemic melodies, chugging guitar and wistful lyrics like, "It's bad enough you broke my heart, you broke the TV, too."
The 5 Chinese Brothers' Stone Soup (PRIME-CD) is another quality Brooklyn product. This one's a reflective folk-rock set, bookended by the infectious "Avalanche" (starring line du jour, "I wish we were married, so we could get divorced") and the roadhouse-ready "Pit Stop," guitarist Steve Antonakos's irresistible 18-wheeling CD vocal debut.
His Blue Chieftains bandmate, guitarist/singer Tim Carroll, is down in Music City these days, shopping around an equally satisfying slice of 12 twangly original rockers. The self-titled cassette features a host of hook-drenched Carroll originals, alongside pedal steel-powered remakes of Chieftains bar classics, "If I Could, Then I Would" and "Every Kind of Music But Country." Somebody give this man a record deal!
Garage-rock reissue label Sundazed has won a permanent place in my bass-walkin', Buck-lovin' heart with its beautifully packaged CD re-release of five mid-'60s Buck Owens Capitol LPs, On the Bandstand, I've Got a Tiger by the Tail, Before You Go/No One But You, I Don't Care and Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat.
Additional kudos to Koch International, for shedding more light on the soulful, after-hours side of the vastly misunderstood Charlie Rich in the label's carefully annotated reissue of Rich's Billy Sherrill-produced late '60s and early '70s efforts, The Fabulous Charlie Rich, Set Me Free and near-perfect Boss Man.
New York's diversity-minded Razor & Tie continues its fertile foray into the Capitol/EMI '50s and '60s country vaults with a stellar Louvin Brothers retrospective, When I Stop Dreaming -- 24 songs about sin, death, redemption and nuclear energy, with some sweet Alabama harmonies thrown in just to confuse the casual listener.
Or to butter 'em up for a lonely, liver-wrenching evening with a bottle and misery chronicler George Jones, who also gets the royal R&T treatment in the label's reissue of his transitional early '60s United Artists LPs, Sings the Hits of His Country Cousins, The Race Is On and Like the Dickens!
The wages of sin and the call of the bottle are recurring themes in the larger-than life of Jerry Lee Lewis. Which is all the more reason to snatch up both the stone-cold Killer Country (PolyGram) compilation of Lewis's bluesy '60s Mercury country material and his brand-new ballbuster, Young Blood (Sire). He'll be 60 in September, but you'd swear he was a horny 18-year-old from the way he purrs, clucks and whoops his way through brothel-ready rockers "Down the Road Apiece," "The House of Blue Lights" and "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)."
Mojo Nixon has never been one to hide his horndoggedness from his adoring public. He's up to his old show-and-tell tricks again on Whereabouts Unknown (Ripe & Ready). Thanks to an all-star cast of NYC rockabilly barbanders (producer Eric "Roscoe Ambel, guitarists Simon Chardiet & Jay Sherman Godfrey, bassist Scott Yoder, drummer Will Rigby, multi-instrumentalist Joe Flood and old hand "Wetdawg" Gordon on piano), Nixon's geekily gleeful "Tie My Pecker to My Leg," "Buck Up and Stop Your Whinin'" and "Girlfriend in a Coma" rock just as hard as the organs they describe.
For more in this not-so-subtle main vein (but with a bit classier '40s sheen), turn to They Rock! They Roll! They Swing! (Sony/Legacy) by Alabama's top jump r&b export, The Treniers, who slyly grin their way around a touchy issue on the tongue-in-cheek "Poon Tang" and "Bald Head."
If all this giggling about genitalia has your PC friends agape and aghast, clean up your act a bit but maintain that funky-smelling sweaty ambience with Blues Costume Party, the third in Black Top Records' line of swinging blues, r&b, zydeco and soul compilations.
Better yet, quit your job and join the circus. And bring along your copies of Blind James Campbell and His Nashville Street Band (Arhoolie), Jason Eklund's Lost Causeway (Flying Fish) and Uncle Dave Macon's Go Long Mule (County). Three different variations on the itinerant street musician theme, ranging from Campbell's raw, joyous early '60s jugband blend of gospel and jump blues to '20s "Grand Ole Opry" regular Macon's cackling burlesque song-stories and clanging, dance-inducing banjo workouts.
Eklund is a 25-year-old wanderer with a weakness for Kerouac and a wry, Plains-parched sneer of a voice that comes through loud and clear over his hard-strummed acoustic and a merry band of change-cup rattlers, dobroists, musical saw players and packing-case beaters. His "(Get Your Kicks on) What's Left of 66" earns a special "Rootin' Around" gold star and check-plus for its humorous, yet hard-boiled honesty about one of those great American icons that's in serious danger of being marketed out of unassuming reality and into our romanticized collective unconscious. Which is not a good thing.
There's not much being romanticized these days in strip-mined Appalachia, but there are verdant valleys full of good things waiting to be discovered deep within the region's formidable musical past and present. Old-Time Mountain Ballads (County) provides a stark introduction to the area's tragic folk song tradition with a set of piercing, rough-hewn 78s waxed from 1926 to 1929 on primitive field recording equipment set up in tiny hotel rooms by the likes of Blind Alfred Reed, Clarence Ashley and Buell Kazee.
Nearly 70 years later, North Carolina's Doug (76 years old) and Jack (63) Wallin are still cultivating this rich body of timeless melodies and lore, reaching back into their prodigious fiddle, banjo and tall-tale repertoire from the casual vantage point of a spartanly furnished Madison County parlor on their stately debut, Family Songs and Stories From the North Carolina Mountains (Smithsonian/Folkways).
It's a long way from the sweet mountain harmonies of feminist old-time country singers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard's 1973 folk revival cult classic, Hazel and Alice (Rounder) to the lilting, refreshing 1946-52 Tejano recordings of San Antonio's Las Hermanas Mendoza -- Juanita & Maria (Arhoolie) . But both of these completely different reissue CDs have a magical way of transporting the listener far, far from the hazy chemical sunset that stains the sky over the Jersey waterfront. Which is a very good thing.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Crazyhead, 124 W. 25th St., #2R, NYC 10001; PRIME-CD, 111 E. 14th St., #300, NYC 10003; 5 Chinese Brothers, P.O. Box 023507, Brooklyn, NY 11202-0035; Tim Carroll, Box 120185, Nashville, TN 37212; Sundazed, Box 85, Coxsackie, NY 12051; Koch International, 177 Cantiague Rock Rd., Westbury, NY 11590; Razor & Tie, Box 585, Cooper Station, NYC 10276; Ripe & Ready, Box 339, Montclair, NJ 07042; Black Top/Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140; Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530; Flying Fish, 1304 W. Schubert, Chicago, IL 60614; County, Box 191, Floyd, VA 24091; Smithsonian Folkways, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Ste. 2600, Washington, DC 20560.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe