One sunny day last October, I moved to Chicago -- a big, flat, neon-streaked place where the hot dogs are topped with long, crunchy pickles and most of the subway cars are imported from Brooklyn.
Rumor has it these cramped, inefficiently designed "El" cars were snatched up on special from Domsey's warehose in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When experienced in conjunction with Chicago's grimy, starkly lit underground stations and wind-whipped elevated platforms, even Manhattan's urine-doused 2nd Ave. F train stop starts to look downright swank in comparison.
Fortunately, the City of Big Shoulders (and pungent pits) is graced with the presence of some talented street musicians, whose wintry retreat into the bowels of the underground stops which ring the downtown Loop district provides a welcome relief from numbing cold and harsh fluorescent lights.
Street Dreams (Clay Dog) collects 17 subway and street performances by a resilient batch of Chicago street musicians, ranging from a pair of a capella groups and a fiercely gritty blues duo (Chicago Brother and Sister Blues Band) to a lilting Haitian singer/guitarist (Fritz Legros) and Chinese fiddler/Polish accordionist team (Yuan Wei & Bogdan Pokrzywnicki).
I could do without the requisite Peruvian pan-flute rendition of "El Condor Pasa" by the well-meaning Ch'Uwa Yuca, but that's a minor gripe (borne of too many East Village street fairs) that should be overlooked in your consideration of this hopeful slice of urban life.
Let's quit knockin' Brooklyn for its lousy mass-transit exports and raise a flag in appreciation of the prolific, hard-working Straker's calypso label operated by owner/producer Granville Straker out of his Straker's Caribbean Record World at 242 Utica Ave. in Crown Heights.
Ah Feel to Party (Rounder) collects 25 of the choicest of the 3,000 or so cuts Straker churned out over the course of two decades as the chief stateside importer of hot sounds from his native Trinidad & Tobago. Leading soca & calypso statesmen Lord Nelson, Black Stalin, Chalkdust, Squibby and Nappy Meyers deliver island-flavored, danceable lectures on safe sex, political unrest, good times and that old pasttime, streaking, on this buoyant reminder of the best borough's bestness.
Wish we could say the same of The Big Bad Johns, whose Coyote Studio recording pedigree forces this jolly bar band to live up to some higher-than-attainable expectations on Plymouth Rock (Feralette). The 'stache-in-jowl "Funky Fu Manchu" kicks off to a thumping garage rock start, but the CD quickly degenerates into a whole lotta swagger without the instrumental punch or songs to back it up.
A similar complaint echoes after a few dates with John Fogerty: Wrote a Song for Everyone (Pravda), the U.S. reissue of the Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute album previously released on Finland's Rubber Rabbit label.
Like most tributes, this boasts an alternative "all-star" lineup (Steve Wynn, The Psyclone Rangers, The New Duncan Imperials, The Coal Porters). And like nearly all tributes, this one falls flat on its face -- with the glaring exception of the Finnish Going Public's downhome take on "Don't Look Now" and Paul Johnson & Fleshtone frontman Peter Zaremba's dark, gutbucket blues stab at CCR's sinister "Cross-Tie Walker."
Atlanta's Cigar Store Indians serve up a long-overdue blast of hook-drenched rockabilly stomp from the City Too Busy Shoving the Olympics Down Our Collective Throats to Bother to Tell Us About Its Promising Alternative Country Scene on the band's self-titled Landslide Records debut. Yoakam-esque harmonies and the stuttering lead guitar of Jim Lavender carry the day on the exquisitely hummable "Pinstripe Suit," a cathartic yelp for all of y'all who've lost girls of your dreams to cocky corporate clones.
Carbon-copying has long been a standard gimmick in Nashville's bag of tawdry tricks. Despite the best efforts of Music City alternative country artists like Kiernan Kane, BR-549, The Delevantes and Tim Carroll, most of the best stuff seeping out of the NashVegas labels these days is of the reissue variety.
And no one does reissues better than the Country Music Foundation, which righted some of Capitol Nashville's most grievous wrongs late last year with the release of honky tonk heart-throb Faron Young's Live Fast, Love Hard: Original Capitol Recordings, 1952-1962 and husky-voiced Jean Shepard's Honky Tonk Heroine: Classic Capitol Recordings, 1952-1964.
Both CDs contain some of the phattest walking-bass and mightiest shuffle-driven moments waxed in this string-drenched period of country music history, including Young's manic "I'm Gonna Live Some Before I Die" and the raw Ms. Shepard's "Twice the Lovin' (in Half the TIme)."
That's just the tip of the compilation iceberg. Honky Tonk Amnesia (Razor & Tie) helps us all remember -- or discover -- that, back in the early '70s, the blow-dried, schmaltz-ified Moe Bandy was once capable of going head-to-head with Haggard & Jones. Bandy's "I Just Started Hatin' Cheatin' Songs Today," "Don't Anyone Make Love at Home Anymore" and "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life" reverberate with a hard-edged, knowing irony that's completely absent in today's form-fitted country.
Which is one more reason to turn back the years to wallow in Capitol's Vintage Collections. These 20-song single CDs resurrect the gorgeous, long-out-of-print George Jones & Melba Montgomery duets alongside sensitively compiled reissues of the Capitol work of then clean-shaven Merle Haggard, teenaged country/rockabilly shouter Wanda Jackson ("Let's Have a Party," "Fujiyama Mama") and '40s/'50s western swing vocalist Tex Williams ("Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)").
Rounder's Don't Fence Me In: Western Music's Early Golden Era and Cattle Call: Early Cowboy Music and Its Roots also do a hearty job of tracing the sentimental origins of the Hollywood-generated cowboy sound that lured Lone Star pickers like Williams to Southern California in the '30s and '40s in search of fame, fortune, orange groves and Nudie suits.
Nowadays, all the Angelenos with an ounce of country in their drive-time souls are heading west on I-10 to Austin, where they're apt to re-invent themselves as hardcore honky tonkers and sensitive singer/songwriters.
True Sounds of the New West (Freedom) is a good-natured introduction to some of the best Texas-bred (Wayne Hancock, The Hollisters, Roy Heinrich) and imported (D.C.'s Tom Clifford, Portland's Chris Miller and Charlie Burton, from parts unknown) country-based acts now working the fertile Austin club circuit.
I'm incurably partial to The Derailers, who turn in one Buck-ed up track, "Lies, Lies, Lies," on the compilation but fork out 13 more revved-up, Bakersfield-style gems on Live Tracks (Freedom), a near-perfect disc recorded loose and loud in the tiny studio of Austin radio station KUT.
Ex-Blaster Dave Alvin surprisingly does more harm than good as producer of the band's professionally recorded debut, Jackpot (Watermelon), a much too slickly produced affair that buries lead singer Tony Villanueva's spirited vocals and guitarist Brian Hofeldt's string-bending crackle in a syrupy Nashville gel of a mix.
The mix is the furthest thing from one's mind when listening to the stark, Carolina mountain harmonies of the stoic E.C. and Orna Ball. This humble, God-fearing elderly couple cut a Carter Family-inspired, guitar-and-vocals album for Rounder not long after the label's early '70s inception. The fact that it's back in print on CD (with a heaven-sent live gospel radio broadcast tacked on the end), will cheer the hearts of anyone who still tingles at the mere mention of Sara Carter and the Blue Sky Boys.
It's readily apparent from Faithless Street (MoodFood) that Cary, North Carolina's Whiskeytown has obviously spent a lot of time absorbing the majestic tone of their '30s Tarheel brethren. Alternately rocking and morbid, this mature quintet weaves in and out of slippery melodies and refrains about cemeteries, angels and the dreaded marriage word. Though they're bound to be compared to Uncle Tupelo, whom some journalists now treat as the veritable inventors of roots rock, Whiskeytown stands up to repeated listenings far better than droning Tupelo clones like Jolene.
No one will ever accuse NYC finger-picking guitarist El McMeen of plagiarism on his latest, Acoustic Guitar (Piney Ridge Music). Even when he dips into the dubious on sneaky covers of the unlikely "Wondeful World," "Wind Beneath My Wings," and "Guantanamera," McMeen's alternate tuning, deft hammer-ons and pull-offs wrest a divine magic out of sheer ether. His sweet, loping takes on British Isle standards "Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill" and "The Fairflower of Northumberland" only reinforce his claim to the acoustic throne.
Which brings us to the curious cases of Chicago's Robbie Fulks and Midwest "supergroup" Golden Smog. Both Fulks's full-length debut, Country Love Songs (Bloodshot) and the Jaywawks/Wilco/Soul Asylum/Run Westy Run combo's second CD, Down by the Old Mainstream (Rykodisc), are studies in country-rock contrast.
On the Smog disc, Jeff Tweedy's so-sappy-it's-endearing "Pecan Pie" (in which our floor-gazin' young man pleads with his love, "Now please don't call me key lime, you're the apple of my eye") is sandwiched between the beautiful, jangle-washed "V," "Ill-Fated" and "Yesterday Cried."
The tall, always-twitching Fulks takes a more kinetic approach to his rocked-up, melodic country, kicking off with a jammin' western swing rendition of The Blue Chieftains' "Every Kind of Music But Country" before veering into some Justin Tubb-styled honky tonk and straight into slee--knappin', pork-infested territory on the oinking "Scrapple."
The final outcome of this battle of the Midwest country rockers for the high ground of my creaky stereo was determined the moment Fulks segwayed into the lonesome "The Buck Starts Here (With Hank Sure to Follow)." If this ain't the perfect country & western song, I'll kiss David Allan Coe's reconstructed ass.
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.
Contact info for harder-to-find labels/publishing companies is as follows: Clay Dog Records, 800-213-1480; Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140; Feralette, 306 W. 4th St., NYC 10014; Pravda 3823 N. Southport, Chicago, IL 60613; Landslide, 1800 Peachtree St. NW, Ste. 333, Atlanta, GA 30309; Country Music Foundation, 4 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203; Razor & Tie, P.O. Box 585, Cooper Station, NYC 10276; Freedom, P.O. Box 650032, Austin, TX 78765; Watermelon, P.O. Box 49056, Austin, TX 78765; MoodFood, 1381 Kildaire Farms Rd., Ste. 246, Cary, NC 27511; Piney Ridge Music, P.O. Box 73, Mountain Lakes, NJ 07046; Bloodshot, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe