All posts by Syd Fablo

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue

Little Girl Blue

Nina SimoneLittle Girl Blue Bethlehem BCP-6028 (1958)

Nina Simone’s debut.  Basically she’s making a Nat “King” Cole Trio album, and only occasionally doing that well.  There’s a sort of smokey vibe to it.  The atmosphere doesn’t quite carry the whole thing though.  There’s really excellent stuff, the vibrant, effortless buoyancy of “My Baby Just Cares for Me”–with Simone embracing the lightness of the song more than she would later in her career–the smooth, lonely grace of “I Loves You Porgy”–where her gently unobtrusive piano accompaniment suits her plaintive vocals–and the stark, harsh, painful solemnity of “Plain Gold Ring”–a tone she would later use many times over with success.  But there are also plenty of really, overextended flashy gimmicks that go beyond Simone’s range, particularly as a pianist (“Mood Indigo,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Good Bait”).  The pure instrumental cuts (“Central Park Blues,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) drag as rote exercises at best dressed up with touches of stodgy formalism.  It’s as if she tries to insert European classical training directly into a “jazz” setting with the expectation that the mere reference to it adds credibility.  But doing so just seems like pandering to the sorts of audiences who don’t really like “jazz” on its own terms and need reassurance that they are hearing somebody with “real” skills from a different–valid–style.  The poppier stuff (“My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I Loves You Porgy”) crackles with more vibrancy and confidence.  Simone dives into it, steps out of herself, and treats the material as it deserves to be treated.

This album has more or less continuously remained in print since the 1950s, and is among Simone’s most well-known.  Yet Simone’s most fundamental approach to performance throughout the entirety of her entire career was all about stamping her own personality on her music, and there isn’t so much of that here, for better or worse.  Still, if you chalk up the weakest stuff as “filler” in an era when albums weren’t usually great from start to finish, this compares fairly well to other albums of the day.

Joan Baez – Day After Tomorrow

Day After Tomorrow

Joan BaezDay After Tomorrow Razor & Tie RTADV830022 (2008)

On Day After Tomorrow, Steve Earle records Joan Baez the same way he would Townes Van Zandt.  And it works!  I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to Baez’s career for the preceding few decades, but she sounds as good as ever.  Well, to qualify that, if you like her vibrato-heavy, rather shrill vocals from the early 1960s, then this may not appeal to you.  But if you want to hear her in a more somber setting, not too far off from the way Johnny Cash made a comeback for American records in the 1990s, then this is for you.  I’ve always respected Baez more for her moral fiber than her recorded music.  This one and Diamonds & Rust are changing my mind though.

Au Pairs – Sense and Sensuality

Sense and Sensuality

Au PairsSense and Sensuality Kamera KAM 010 (1982)

After Au Pairs’ critically-lauded, feminist punk debut album Playing With a Different Sex, the band returned the following year with the much different Sense and Sensuality.  While the debut focused on compact, driving and funky punk songs, the follow-up moved in many different directions.  This eclectic approach has garnered it mixed reviews.  On the one hand, there is still a lot of feminist rage, and angular, funky cuts are still to be found (“Intact”).  Yet there is a slicker and more sinister approach to the way Sense and Sensualilty was recorded.  It makes a more ominous use of space.  Take “Stepping Out of Line,” for instance.  It has icy, repetitive guitar in abundance, highly compressed drums, and some synth, with the bass pushed far down in the mix.  It bears some resemblance to Magazine‘s Secondhand Daylight.  It’s the relative absence of a regular bass line that most noticeably differentiates this from the previous effort.  Elsewhere there are clear jazz influences, from the retro-lounge vocals on “Tongue in Cheek” to the slightly dissonant horn charts on “That’s When It’s Worth It.”  Songs like “Sex Without Stress” have a punk edge, but are altogether poppier than on the debut, foreshadowing the (much-maligned) direction Gang of Four would take the following year with Hard.  Au Pair’s experiments don’t fail, exactly, but the dark and brooding tone doesn’t generate the anthemic blend of feminist militancy and smart humor that has endeared so many fans to Playing With a Different Sex.

It’s worth noting that, like reissues of albums by X-Ray Spex and The Fall, reissues of Sense and Sensuality have reordered the original track listing — even Stepping Out of Line: The Anthology disregards the original track sequence.  It’s worth taking this in the original sequencing, that opens with “Don’t Lie Back,”  because that gives the lyrical and thematic focus of the songs a slower pace to develop.

Anthony Braxton – Eugene (1989)

Eugene (1989)

Anthony Braxton with the Northwest Creative OrchestraEugene (1989) Black Saint 120137-2 (1991)

A good one, though somehow falling just shy of being one to recommend without qualification.  Braxton, himself, plays exceptionally.  He sounds particularly enthusiastic in his solos.  The synthesizer, which is surprisingly reminiscent of late period Sun Ra (in a good way), is nonetheless as dated as a silver lamé jumpsuit from a 1960s sci-fi movie.  This live recording is also a merely adequate document of the performance at times, without the richness that surely must have been felt in-person at the performance.  Still, when this music gets going it is really fresh.  The use of electric guitar to produce crunchy yet sinuous blocks of sound anticipates Mary Halvorson‘s work with Braxton more than a decade later, though the instrument has a relatively minor role here.  The best parts of the album are those reinterpreting big band jazz.  Even the Braxton novice will catch on to this quickly.

Willie Nelson – Songbird


Willie NelsonSongbird Lost Highway B0006939-02 (2006)

The problem with Willie Nelson’s late career has been to find a convincing reason to bother recording yet another album.  He always had eclectic tastes and a fairly broad range to dabble with jazz, traditional pop, rock, and other little undercurrents in his music.  But he has already been there and done that.  Like the toils and troubles of Gene Hackman‘s character in Nicolas Roeg‘s Eureka (1983), who spent his life searching for a big gold strike and then hits it (right at the beginning of the film) only to struggle to find purpose for the rest of his life; it raises the question, “What next?”  Nelson has tried and succeeded in so many ways, there is a tendency to be lazy in the aftermath.  He has long had a lazy streak, which can be exacerbated by his new age fatalism — a sort of lopsided Zen practice that passively hopes for the best (with very much an emphasis on the “passively” part).  Much of his 1980s output smacked of pale attempts to recreate past successes, often with diminished enthusiasm.  It hasn’t helped that his enforced mantra of “positive thinking” largely stripped away one of his biggest talents: putting a good-natured, positive spin on hard, desolate music.  It’s that, plus a lot of Nelson’s increasingly half-hearted efforts in easy listening pap have tended to be quite commercially successful, providing all the wrong sorts of encouragements.

Songbird pairs Willie with Ryan Adams & The Cardinals.  Adams produces too.  This is something of an attempt to recreate the success of Teatro, by again pairing Nelson with a producer having solid rock credentials.  While there’s little doubt that Songbird tends toward pretty muted statements, it’s also a pleasant and consistent listen.  Adams keeps this fairly mellow and inoffensive, but his band The Cardinals succeeds in giving Willie accompaniment that is contemporary without feeling forced into some sort of faddish sound.  The title track is a Fleetwood Mac cover, and definitely the best offering here.  Willie doesn’t exactly turn in many committed performances, but even on autopilot his vocals suffice.  The closer “Amazing Grace” is a spooky, weird rendition, almost as unexpected as John Cale‘s deconstruction of “Heartbreak Hotel” on Slow Dazzle 30 years earlier.  Yet another cover of “Hallelujah” is filler here, but, if you must have filler, why not a classic Leonard Cohen tune?  While Songbird may not be Willie at his finest, and it may not always be exciting, it still works as sort of an inoffensive album of undemanding indie/alt country.

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

Erykah BaduNew Amerykah Part One (4th World War) Universal Motown B0010800-02 (2008)

I don’t listen to much R&B these days.  And why should I?  Most of it is that bad…you know, rank, superficial posturing on nothing more than ridiculous and unending “American/Pop Idol” melisma.  I won’t even get into the Amy Winehouse types.  It’s been years since anything close to as good as Voodoo, or even The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has crossed my path.  This New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is something though.  Erykah Badu has an unusual voice.  Her lyrical subject matter is, on the one hand, nothing new, but, on the other hand, there is nothing in her songs that is anything less than supremely relevant.  The music leans on hip hop and darker Seventies soul without sounding like it’s trying too hard to sound like either.  If you want soul/R&B that makes an effort to be meaningful, then you’ve come to the right spot.  She released a Part Two that felt considerably more limp and  less engaged.

Willie Nelson – American Classic

American Classic

Willie NelsonAmerican Classic Blue Note 67197 (2009)

These “standards” albums are so common, that you almost expect that mild-mannered jazz combos record piles of them just to leave “in the can,” waiting for celebrity vocalists to come along and drop in some singing on top.  Willie Nelson has done plenty of these before (Stardust, Healing Hands of Time, etc.), this one merely in the format of the revived Blue Note Records pop jazz aesthetic.  It’s stripped of any real charisma, ensuring that it’s a real snoozer.  Yet, this one’s professional through-and-through.  My mom would sure enjoy this, as she loves vapid, lowest common denominator, boring housewife sort of albums like this and Rod Stewart‘s It Had to Be You… The Great American Songbook.  But I’m selling this short!  It is also suited as background music for a genteel businessman’s cocktail lounge or a waiting room.

Willie Nelson – Countryman


Willie NelsonCountryman Lost Highway B0004706-02 (2005)

Oh, Willie.  Countryman is his reggae album “10 years in the making” (says the album sleeve — in reality it must be that no one wanted to release it).  The one inspired choice is a cover of Johnny Cash‘s “I’m a Worried Man,” which Cash wrote about a man he encountered in Jamaica, sung here as a duet with Toots Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals.  Otherwise, this tiresome genre exercise has nothing to offer.  “Straight” country versions of reggae songs (like he does for “The Harder They Come” here) would have worked better than Willie singing against a reggae beat.  Still waiting on Willie’s hip-hop album.