2006: Robert Callender - Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme
The undertaking of a concept album is always a tricky proposition. The sad truth with regard to the endeavor is that once the artist runs out of songs, or simply runs out of ideas that bolster the overall concept, the artist is nonetheless restricted to the conceptual limitations they’ve imposed upon themselves. The other difficult question one must always ask is: how relevant, or perhaps, how meaningful is the concept in the first place? Robert Callender’s Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is, as one might imagine, a concept album dealing primarily with the history of the Impressionist movement, but it also serves as a veritable who’s-who gallery of the French Impressionists (well, mostly — the roster also includes Vincent Van Gogh for good measure). And in the interests of fairness, despite the nature of Callender’s early Indian-influenced output, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is not the Eastern-tinged sitar fest replete with Gallic flourishes one might expect based solely on the album’s cover art.
Long considered lost (or at any rate, among the most difficult to find psych rarities of its time prior to this reissue), Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme was initially released in the early ‘70s (allegedly in 1972) on the Philips label as a small pressing exclusively in Holland, which might help explain Van Gogh’s inclusion. The record features lyrics sung in French and English, in fairly equal proportions. Musically speaking, the record is a sumptuous mélange of jazz, soul, progressive, and psychedelic rock. As a concept album, however, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is frustrating, if not confounding. Let’s be forthcoming about this: given the times in which we’re now living, and the innumerable idiomatic paradigm shifts the world of popular music has undergone toward the nihilistic and egocentric, concept albums of this sort do not age gracefully. Though Callender’s homage to the Impressionists borders on the touching at times, the historical and biographical nature of these tracks has the tendency to come off as tedious.
It’s hard not to suppress a snicker when encountering lyrics such as, “Monet, Monet, Monet, ooh, ooh / I’m singin’ about Claude Monet”; “I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec / I said I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec”; or, worse, “Mystical madman / mystical, but truly a very sad man was he,” in reference to Van Gogh. Considering the astonishing grandeur of the arrangements, which fall somewhere between the off-kilter, psych-inflected eccentricities of David Axelrod and the slick but capable production values of the Motown era (Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra project even comes to mind on several of these tracks), it’s regrettable to hear these baroquely crafted suites marred by Callender’s cloying bathos. Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme would have been a hardcore crate digger’s dream come true if not for the oppressive profusion of Callender’s admittedly well-intentioned but overly verbose lyrics.
To his enormous credit, and despite the record’s shortcomings, Robert Callender assembled a stunning cast of musicians for Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme, which, ultimately, is majestic, operatic, and epic in its scope. Callender’s arrangements are highly complex without being pretentious and feature deftly played proto-funk musicianship that has the overall effect of sounding slightly ahead of its time. Callender expertly blends psychedelia with R&B and jazz to create an album that, though conceptually antiquated and anachronistic by today’s standards, is elegantly meticulous in its execution all the same.
1977: Cerrone - Cerrone’s Paradise; Supernature 3; The Golden Touch
You may or may not recognize the name of Jean-Marc Cerrone, but you already know what he’s done. This French producer and chops-laden drummer is one of the main originators of disco, which subsequently spawned the funky house plague. But before you start puking, you should hear this out. Although the ideas of Cerrone have been continually watered down and regurgitated by so many weak-willed DJs and point-and-click producers, the original, unbastardized tracks -- if not worthy of your butt-wiggling patronage -- are at least deserving of your respect. These albums were actually played live. The monolith of creativity that forged every note by frail human hand is still being mined today by people with far less character, suckling the passion out a sample at a time like the untalented leaches that they are. Well there’s no need to paw at the shameless imitators any more; go straight to the source. Among other things, Recall Records has re-released Cerrone’s seminal works, namely Cerrone’s Paradise, Supernature 3, and The Golden Touch. The latter album starts to cut the edge of '80s funk cheese, but the other two aforementioned albums are solid gold through and through. “Supernature” and the title track from Cerrone’s Paradise will strike the groove even into the most cynical and cold-hearted soul (I would know… I’m a total prick). This is the disco that remembers there used to be some tits in there, coked up and flopping around on the dance floor. Let’s party like it’s 1979. Dig it.
2001: Bob Sinclair - Cerrone
Listening to this mix album by Bob Sinclair of Marc Cerrone’s classic work, several notions become easily verifiable. For one, in hearing an unadulterated original Cerrone album from start to finish, it’s apparent that Cerrone is an artist (albeit an extremely coked up, white boy, afro-havin’ one), and Bob Sinclair is not. It’s way too easy to see why disco was so popular when you hear the entire 17-minute long “Cerrone’s Paradise” or the gnarly “Supernature.” It’s equally easy to see why house music, for which people like Cerrone were largely responsible, is so horribly banal, especially when trying to stand at attention for all of Sinclair’s Cerrone mix. The perpetual 4/4 beats and mild electronic effects that bumble along without a care, which Sinclair’s ilk obviously loves, suck the living soul out of Cerrone’s classic tracks. Modern house producers aren’t even in the same league as Cerrone was (even current Cerrone fails to live up to his past). Not that point-and-click production isn’t without its merits, it’s just that house producers often tend to merely rehash and hack at concepts with a mouse that people like Cerrone actually played some 30 years ago. Funky disco house has no fresh ideas -- the entire genre rests on grave digging from the creative powerhouses of the past. Suffice it to say, Cerrone recalls a time when the sexuality of disco was vibrant and raunchy, instead of today’s sterile, bland and empty gyrations.
2002: The Star Room Boys - This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone
Over the years, I’ve managed to cobble together a conception of what I believe to be, in the Platonic sense, the ideal dive bar. No mere shadow on the wall of a cave, mind you, this image has emerged over time as a rock-solid mental construct, complete with cracked leather booths, a slightly surly staff, and very cheap shots. The centerpiece of the whole grand vision is a jukebox equipped to confound and repel the casual drinker. Every one of a Platonic form’s elements are, of course, equally essential, but the records of the Star Room Boys merit special mention, for they exist so securely at the heart of the ideal dive-bar jukebox as to constitute an utterly indispensable part of its anatomy.
The Star Room Boys formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1995 and went on to produce two LPs under the direction of singer and songwriter Dave Marr before calling it quits in 2002. Lyrically, both records trade in some of country music’s most familiar themes - love, liquor and loss - but they do so without stridency or excessive sentimentality, and with a good deal of moral ambiguity. No doubt this helps to account for the “alt-country” label that critics have applied to the group, but make no mistake, the Star Room Boys are a straight country band. In fact, Marr’s facility with honky-tonk idioms amounts to nothing less than a pitch-perfect mastery of the genre.
While the band’s debut, Why Do Lonely Men and Women Want to Break Each Other’s Hearts,may well be their definitive statement, Marr’s talents as a singer and songwriter are manifest throughout This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone. The opening line of the record, “White lies, blue tears, red eyes, black fears,” crests and crashes on a wave of up-tempo guitars. Many of the remaining tracks are more subdued but no less engaging. Boozy ballads like “Whiskey and You” and “When I’m All the Way Down” showcase Marr’s wonderful voice, which, though slightly less prone to twangy affectation, has aptly been compared to Dwight Yoakam’s. Arguably the highpoint of the entire Star Room Boys catalog, “Cocaine Parties” is a minor masterpiece, in which Marr builds to the first chorus with remarkable restraint and delivers it with climactic conviction. Surely the author of tracks like this and “I’ll Play Angel,” another standout, can be forgiven for the album’s sole misstep, a little rockabilly-tinged regret called “Daydreamer” reminiscent of early Old 97's.
Whether or not they ever emerge from their present obscurity, the Star Room Boy’s legacy should be one of excellence in a much maligned and misunderstood genre. At the very least, they provide the best soundtrack since Hank Williams for a good lonely drunk. While not necessarily a band for amateur alcoholics, anyone with even the slightest tolerance for country music should take the time to sample and savor these songs.
2006: Of Mexican Descent - Exitos y Mas Exitos [Deluxe Edition]
Exitos y Mas Exitos is a lost hip-hop classic, originally released in 1997 as a vinyl-only EP. With production help from Antimc, KutMaster Kurt, and Elvin “Nobody” Estela, the original seven-track EP appeared alongside Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, at the beginning of hip-hop’s big leftfield backpacker movement (thank Gawd for that movement). “Money Is Meaningless” just predates Dose One’s style with slightly more political lyrics, while the cinematic beat for “Lady Of The Lake” tells as much of a story as the words of 2mex and Xololanxinxo. This re-release augments the original with almost every other track Of Mexican Descent ever caught on tape, but there’s not much in the way of filler. Actually, the bonus tracks give the short-lived LA outfit a surprising amount of depth. The 1993-recorded, Chong-sampling, tape-warped “Something Cool” beats art-hop and Quasimoto to the punch by years, yet it’s supposedly a skit -- so even the filler is killer. In sight of this, it becomes clear what a tragedy it is they couldn’t keep up the momentum in North America. Whatever “it” is, they had it with tons to spare.
2006: Karen Dalton - In My Own Time
When record labels reissue albums, it’s just as important to critique the conversation around the album as it is to discuss the actual music. Why are we returning to a particular record at a particular point in time? Do obscure records, lost gems, and fan favorites get repressed because a bunch of lawyers finally decided how to disburse the royalties, or do the albums that get reissued say something about the attitudes of their potential audience?
In Karen Dalton’s case, economic factors explain why her second LP, In My Own Time, languished in obscurity for a quarter century. Dalton only released two albums: her 1969 effort It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best, a collection of one-take recordings made unbeknownst to Dalton when she dropped in the studio to visit her friend Fred Neil, and this 1971 follow-up, a more lavishly produced album that took six months to make. It’s So Hard saw CD re-release in the late ‘90s and attracted listeners who had read about Dalton in oral histories of the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene. Dalton landed in New York just as Neil, Bob Dylan, and Tim Hardin were establishing themselves, and though she was too shy and erratic to thrive as a recording artist, she still earned the admiration and respect of her more renowned peers. When It’s So Hard reached a mass audience, revisionists began to argue that Dalton is just as essential a part of the ‘60s folk-rock pantheon as her famous pals. That album’s too-good-to-believe backstory only bolstered Dalton’s mystique – here was a woman who felt and lived the blues she sang so fundamentally that she didn’t need a producer to make affecting music. In praising her authenticity, though, Dalton’s converts couldn’t embrace here sophomore album so readily. With its borderline soft-rock trappings and glistening Nashville twangs, In My Own Time seemed to many like a case of a natural talent restrained by commercial pressures – as the record’s title implied, a seemingly timeless voice had begun to reflect her milieu.
Over the last decade, however, a new generation of listeners has begun to grant folk-rockers more space for pretension and adornment. We’ve seen neo-folkies like Devendra Banhart (whose hyperbolic praise of Dalton comprises a considerable chunk of this reissue’s 30-plus page booklet) and Joanna Newsom create sprawling, expensive albums that felt miles away from their humble, acoustic debuts, and we realized that bigger can indeed be better, or at least just as good. Meanwhile Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance and Eureka have demonstrated that the line between avant-pop experimentation and AM-gold populism is more easily transgressed than one might initially think. When The New York Times writes articles on Six Organs of Admittance and Arthur runs Best Buy ads, it’s probably time to re-evaluate In My Own Time.
Well, it’s beginning to look like this is a more substantial record than we originally thought. For one thing, Dalton seems as bewildered by the world of pop as one could be. As an interpreter rather than a songwriter, Dalton’s m.o. is to make others’ songs her own by re-imagining cadences, intonations, and even bar lines. For In My Own Time, Paramount, the parent company behind her label Just Sunshine, allowed Dalton to cover the kinds of smash hit songs she didn’t on her debut. In her versions of “How Sweet It Is” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the singer goes to great lengths to divorce her interpretations from more popular recordings – when working with tried and true material, an artist has to go to such lengths to assert themselves. She reworks “When a Man” into a gentler number more befitting a jazz coo-er than a soul crooner and injects a female perspective into the lyrics. Dalton sounds more mournful than celebratory, though, and so does her band – the horn section is downright woozy, on the verge of slipping out of key even. In “How Sweet It Is,” Dalton cultivates an even stronger sense of ambiguity. She seems as unconfident of the words she sings as Robert Wyatt does in his laconic take on The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” leaving her bandmates to sing the refrain as she wrings some other, ineffably sad sentiment from particular syllables. Lost in these songs, Dalton sings against pop’s promise of generality – her intonations suggest that love is an idiosyncratic, personal series of emotions that can never conform to a Holland, Dozier, and Holland blueprint, even when we want to believe that it can.
Much more assured are Dalton’s performances in “Same Old Man” and “Katie Cruel,” the only traditional pieces that appear on the album. Here she eschews the opulent bass lines and flashy drum fills that characterize the rest of the record and lets a banjo, a violin, and her voice do the job. For once, Dalton doesn’t manipulate meter or sing against the grain – the dynamic between her voice and the music is symbiotic, intuitive, unified. It’s as though her connection with songs from time immemorial is more fundamental, more human.
Let’s not make the mistake, though, of overplaying Dalton’s connection with authentic folk music. Otherwise we might end up looking at the artist’s Native American lineage and begin to espouse some horribly primitivistic sentiments. Lacy J. Dalton does this in the reissue liner notes: “Karen loved the earth, as a Native American, a woman, a queen, a pagan mother goddess rooted in this planet, and she was so desolate about what we were doing to it.” Pagan mother goddess’ don’t even touch Motown songs, not even to subvert them. While Dalton would constantly leave NYC to spend time in southwestern outdoor settings, she found her artistic footing in an urban environment and with people who were active participants in the pop music world. This was never an environment in which she was fully at home, but Dalton nevertheless cracked open its potential for critique. Only amidst sparkling arrangements can a wavering voice express just how bittersweet it is to be loved by anyone.