Category Archives: Music

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

Bish Bosch

Scott WalkerBish Bosch 4AD CAD3220CD (2012)


The most amazing feat of Scott Walker’s later career has been to have the most unlikely popular audiences receive it so well.  Since Tilt in 1995 his music has adopted experimental, operatic elements that lack the syncopation that is foundational to pop music of the rock era.  The Drift added an increasingly ominous and dark tone to what already was frighteningly unique music.  With Bish Bosch, Walker is flirting again with syncopation, fitfully at times, but with its programmed drum beats and proto-metal electric guitar it provides a more direct link with (fairly) contemporary pop music than anything he’s released in nearly 30 years.  On top of that he’s able to pull together the resources to have orchestration on an album this “out”.  Yet, he still manages to have his sense of humor felt quite directly.  His previous album The Drift had surreal, absurdist lyrics like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” (“Jolson and Jones”) but Bish Bosch goes for a more heady mix of lowbrow phrasings with lyrics like “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face” (“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)”).  To pull all these elements together in a way that holds together and finds more than scattered audiences at the fringes is no mean feat, and it’s the mark of a master that Walker has done it, again.  There is definitely a brutality in the world of 2012 and Scott Walker seems to have his finger on that pulse in a way that is as unsettling and uncomfortable as the times themselves.  What Bish Bosch reveals, though, is a sense of hidden value in the grotesque, an affirming quality that with a lot of effort–and with the enormous cast of players here, that’s an understatement–people have the power to reclaim the very foundation of the grotesque and create from it a new context.  It’s quite telling that Walker’s approach means an engagement of the highbrow with the lowbrow, and that a gap between those audiences music be bridged.  Granted, he has not won over all listeners, but in a philosophical sense, he’s re-imagining the meaning and possibilities of the path he sets out upon.  It’s not just a different arrangement of the same old elements, but a bold new system of determining what is real and what is illusion.  That is to say that listening to this sort of music can change how to listen to other things, and change your perception of what you have already heard.  It seems the role of philosopher king suits Scott Walker well in his advancing years.

Lotte Lenya – Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill

Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill

Lotte LenyaLotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill Philips B 07 089 (1955)


Lotte Lenya was, in a word, inimitable.  That voice, so frail yet so unshakable, gave us the definitive interpretations of Kurt Weill‘s music.  Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill was recorded in 1955 as her career saw a revival thanks to a new English-language production of Brecht/Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” by Marc Blitzstein at the Theatre de Lys (co-starring Bea Arthur, Ed Asner and Jerry Stiller).  She recorded in Berlin, returning for the first time in twenty years.  That environment was likely crucial to the record that resulted.  A lot had changed in those years.

First some history.  Germany and Prussia, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, provoked the Great War (World War I) by seeking to enjoy the same economic and political privileges that imperial powers like France and England sought to reserve for themselves.  Germany/Prussia was eventually defeated due primarily to the fact that the United States lent its fiscal and manufacturing support to the side of the Allies — in spite of the Bolshevik Revolution that withdrew Soviet/Russian troops from the ridiculous conflict (not to mention allowed the publication of the secret Allied treaties in Pravda).  That particular war lead to abdication by Wilhelm II in 1918, and later the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  The treaty has lived in infamy, as it memorialized the old grudges held by England/France against their counterparts with oppressive reparations imposed on the Germans/Prussians.  To the chagrin of the Allies, American boorishness reared its head as the United States refused to treat Allied support as wartime grants not to be repaid (as was long tradition among warring nations) but instead as loans to be repaid (thanks to American intransigence and other factors like inept British negotiation, the terms of the loans worked out after the war were, to say the least, oppressive).  (Read about this in Michael Hudson‘s Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance (New Edition)).  This set the stage for Weimar Germany, the Republic established out of the confusion following Wilhelm II’s abdication that lasted barely more than a decade until the Nazis rose to power in 1933.

Weimar Germany was a strange and unusual thing.  German reparations were so oppressive as to eliminate the possibility of economic recovery.  Moreover, repayment of the outrageous Allied loans was realistically tied to and dependent upon the payment of German reparations — despite self-serving American denials.  In that economically savage context, with recovery impossible, the German people lived a chaotically vibrant but inescapably desperate existence.  The classic novel of the Weimar era, Alfred Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplaz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf [Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf], portrays the times as well as anything (the relatively lazy can instead watch the 15+ hour adaptation Berlin Alexanderplatz by New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder).  Like the novel’s protagonist, good intentions fall prey to grim realities, and crime and prostitution become familiar responses to a life of limited opportunities.  Disgusting Nazi propaganda becomes a repository for misguided resentment and wounded pride, or, in Biberkopf’s case, simple gullibility.

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (married to each other twice) rose to prominence in this Weimer era.  Weill was a composer like Erik Satie or George Gershwin, seeking to bridge the gap between popular music and formal, classical composition.  Weill has been frequently compared to Mozart for the direct, lyrical qualities of his music, so simple but with a rich and nuanced depth underneath.

The music of this album comes from a number of Weill efforts: “Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera],” “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahogonny [The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny],” “Happy End” and “Das Berliner Requiem [Berlin Requiem]” with texts by Bertolt Brecht and “Der Silbersee, Ein Wintermärchen [The Silverlake, A Winter’s Tale]” with texts by Georg Kaiser.  What makes these particular recordings so wonderful is that the music is an honest and grim interpretation of Weill’s music.  When he originally scored “The Threepenny Opera,” he did not use a full orchestra.  Instead, the music was for seven musicians asked to play a total of twenty-three different instruments.  Alex Ross, in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, writes that “by asking his performers to take on so many roles, Weill guarantees that the playing will have, in place of soulless professional expertise, a scrappy, seat-of-the-pants energy.”  In that, one finds some of the essence of Weimar Germany, just like Franz Biberkopf the working-class protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz shifts his career among that of a pimp, necktie clip salesman, shoelace drummer (door-to-door salesman), newspaper barker, burglar.  Biberkopf’s determined but futile individualism has the same spirit as in Weill’s ingenious, street-wise compositions.

These particular recordings, with instrumentation like a ragged banjo and warbling organ on “Moritat vom Mackie Messer [The Ballad of Mack the Knife],” or an out-of-tune piano on “Bilbao-Song,” are true to the original Weill vision.  It is great that Brecht and Weill’s song has become something of a standard, but the slick renditions of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and others miss something when the sense of fear and uncertainty is swept away with a very refined pop/jazz arrangement.  These 1955 recordings bring out something in Lenya’s voice too.  Recording amidst a once-grand city ruined by Allied terror campaigns, the sense of grim desperation that so characterized Weimar Germany just below the surface in the 1920s is palpable in her rough-hewn and gently aged voice.  The Great War (WWI) killed untold people, but the civilian infrastructure of Europe was largely untouched.  World War II changed that.  American callousness led the Air Force to switch to terror bombing of civilian targets starting with Berlin, then on to the fire-bombing of Dresden (memorialized in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death) and Tokyo, the dropping of napalm on Royan, France (read Howard Zinn, who participated as a bombardier), and culminating with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (later revealed to have been unnecessary in view of a Japanese willingness to surrender, but advanced to try to intimidate Stalin; read Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing The Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan or Gal Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb) — for their part the other war powers had their own instruments of terror, from the German Paris Gun and V-1 and V-2 rockets to the Japanese explosive devices delivered to mainland North America on balloons carried in the jet stream.  In spite of the Wirtschaftswunder, or German “Economic Miracle” of the post-WWII years made possible by cancellation of German internal debt (and with U.S. aggression in the Korean War serving to bolster the German economy), Berlin was still in visible ruins when Lenya returned (for more context, watch Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun [The Marriage of Maria Braun]).  However, the Berlin Wall, erected by the East to keep out CIA saboteurs (read William Blum Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (Updated Through 2003)), was still six years away.

In such a brutal century, Brecht and Weill’s murderous Macheath, the central character of “Mack the Knife,” seems like a sign of the times.  His knife, so the lyrics tell us, is out of sight, like the airplanes and rockets bringing down fire on civilians, or the economic subterfuge of government reparations and debt that invisibly suppressed the Germans, French and English in the Weimar era.  That is the way of Brecht’s theatrical vision.  Songs like “Alabama-Song” too (with lyrics some allege were co-written by Brecht’s girlfriend Elisabeth Hauptmann) capture pub life (during an era of American Prohibition), with deadpan refrains of “Oh don’t ask why / Oh don’t ask why.”  The words also tell of looking for a dollar, or else they, the singers, “must die.”  The contrast of the merciless themes and the seemingly light, sing-along performance throw light on the odd complexities of modern life.  Times have changed less than it may seem, only the origins of those realities are more concealed than ever.

Later attempts to make music ostensibly like this so often resort to irony.  There is no irony here.  There are contrasts, and dialectical devices, but everything is a direct representation of what is expressed.  This is music like little else.

Donny Hathaway – Live

Live

Donny HathawayLive Atco SD 33-386 (1972)


Recorded at two performances, one on each coast (at The Troubadour in Hollywood and The Bitter End in New York City), Donny Hathaway’s Live takes on an intimate small-club feel throughout. The songs recorded on the West Coast would seem to come first. They have a smooth gloss. The songs that seem to come from performance in New York retain more brutal space and gaps. Regardless of where any one song was recorded, the entire collection presents a varied, evocative look at soul music from one of its greatest interpreters.

Donny Hathaway, still in his twenties, was perhaps the most intellectual soul or R&B performer of his day. Well, that may be misleading. He was among the most mature. Depth and clarity are ever-present in his music. The complexity of a song like “Hey Girl”, for example, is of no concern. It is effortless. Simple in its relation to the fervor of feelings sought, lost, held, doubted by practically all of us, the song’s evocation of an uncertain relationship is an experience in itself. That is the near miracle of the album. Every listen makes the present day seem to stretch out forever.

Carole King‘s “You’ve Got a Friend” (popularly recorded by James Taylor) is a transcendent moment. For quite a while, Donny lets the audience carry most—not just some—of the vocals. There is a complete communion between those who began as separate groups of performers and audience. The union happens almost immediately. Hathaway gracefully lays out the first few chords on his electric piano and a cheer immediately rises. Just the first few seconds of that song are enough to restore a sense of purpose in the most lifeless among us. Hathaway’s confidence, poise, determination and generosity are evident.

Another spectacular cover is John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy”. Whimsical guitar and piano riffs punctuate Donny’s patient vocals. Like all his music, there is a warmth too rarely found elsewhere. Also, Donny shows he can downplay his gospel roots and still succeed in every way.

“Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” stretches out over four movements, with each lending an opportunity for different musicians to step to the front (like guitarists Mike Howard and Cornell Dupree, and “the baddest bass player in the country” Willie Weeks), each movement also lending to a changing emotional interpretation of the song. Certainly the funkiest number on the album, the extended (thirteen minute) performance highlights what an accomplished soul-jazz combo was at work.

Though plagued by severe depression through much of the coming years, the period when Live was recorded was Donny Hathaway’s creative peak. In his last years, Donny recorded little. His duets with Roberta Flack from the early 1970s–“Where Is the Love?”, etc.–found the most widespread popularity. Still, it will be Donny’s own records that will endure longest.

It would be too much to say this is one of the greatest albums ever made. There are no final greatest masterpieces. Contexts change. Even still, hell, Live is as close to the top of the heap as we’ll ever know.

The Electric Flag – The Electic Flag

The Electric Flag

The Electric FlagThe Electric Flag Columbia CS 9714 (1968)


Lester Bangs lamented that The Electric Flag got buzz in the press when more deserving acts languished in obscurity (in spite of Bangs’ best efforts).  There is just something disingenuous about The Electric Flag.  Yeah, they have a jazzy soul thing going, melded with slightly psychedelic blues rock.  But it seems too crass, just an assemblage of whatever seemed “hip” at the time.  It’s contrived.  These guys would have made a great studio band for somebody else, but on their own they just don’t have any good ideas of their own, just the ability to loosely amalgamate popular styles of the day.  It’s the kind of music they seemed obligated to make, not music that came from any kind of genuine passion or drive outside of rock careerism.  This just clings to forms that already had matured in the hands of others.  But, for what it’s worth, this album beats the seemingly better-known A Long Time Comin’.  Reference The Rascals too.

Traveling These Roads Between Heaven & Hell: Johnny Cash, Singer of Songs

Bitter Tears: Ballads of the Americna Indian

My selections for a “virtual” compilation of music by Johnny Cash, in the spirit of Bob Dylan‘s Biograph.  In other words, this steps out from the usual canon of accepted Cash classics and presents some of the hits together with non-single deep album tracks, live recordings, B-sides, demos, and other overlooked treasures.  Don’t consider this exhaustive.  There are plenty of great Cash recordings not featured here.  The list provides links to single releases, if any, plus the first album releases.

Disc 1:

  1. I Walk the Line” (1956); Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  2. Folsom Prison Blues” (1955); Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  3. “I Was There When It Happened” Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  4. “The Wreck of the Old ’97” Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  5. Hey, Porter!” (1955); Now Here’s Johnny Cash (1961)
  6. Get Rhythm” (1956); Greatest! (1959)
  7. Big River” (1958); Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous (1958)
  8. “Five Minutes to Live” The Man in Black: 1959-’62 (1991)
  9. Guess Things Happen That Way” (1958); Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous (1958)
  10. “The Ways of a Woman in Love” [alternate version] Roads Less Travelled: The Rare and Unissued Sun Recordings (2001)
  11. “Goodnight Irene” Original Sun Sound of Johnny Cash (1964)
  12. I Still Miss Someone” (1958); The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1958)
  13. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” Hymns by Johnny Cash (1959)
  14. “Drink to Me” Songs of Our Soil (1959)
  15. “The Great Speckled Bird” Songs of Our Soil (1959)
  16. Seasons of My Heart” (1960); Now, There Was a Song! Memories From the Past (1960)
  17. “Transfusion Blues” Now, There Was a Song! Memories From the Past (1960)
  18. The Rebel – Johnny Yuma” (1961); Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)
  19. “In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home” The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962)
  20. A Little at a Time” (1962); Old Golden Throat (1968)
  21. Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (1962); Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)
  22. “The Talking Leaves” Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)
  23. “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)
  24. “Custer” Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)
  25. Ring of Fire” (1963); Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)
  26. Understand Your Man” (1964); I Walk the Line (1964)
  27. It Ain’t Me, Babe” (1964); Orange Blossom Special (1965)
  28. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” Nashville at Newport (1995)
  29. “Ballad of Ira Hayes” Nashville at Newport (1995)
  30. “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” Orange Blossom Special (1965)

Disc 2:

  1. “Mr. Lonesome” The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962)
  2. “The Road to Kaintuck” Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965)
  3. “Happiness Is You” Happiness Is You (1966)
  4. Johnny Cash & June Carter “Fast Boat to Sydney” Carryin’ On (1967)
  5. Folsom Prison Blues” (1968); At Folsom Prison (1968)
  6. “Dark as the Dungeon” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  7. “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  8. “Jackson” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  9. “I Got Stripes” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  10. “Greystone Chapel” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  11. “Tennessee Flat Top Box” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  12. “Remember the Alamo” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  13. “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  14. “Ring of Fire” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  15. “Darling Companion” At San Quentin (1969)
  16. A Boy Named SueAt San Quentin (1969)
  17. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley” At San Quentin (1969)
  18. Bob Dylan “Girl From the North Country” Nashville Skyline (1969)
  19. The Folk Singer” (1968); The Bootleg Series Vol. 2: From Memphis to Hollywood (2011)
  20. “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station” From Sea to Shining Sea (1968)
  21. “Daddy Sang Bass” At Madison Square Garden (2002)
  22. “He Turned the Water Into Wine” The Gospel Music of Johnny Cash (2008) (or version from the February 11, 1970 episode of “The Johnny Cash Show” – not available in album format)
  23. Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970); The Johnny Cash Show (1970)
  24. “Girl From the North Country” (with Joni Mitchell) The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 (2008)
  25. Flesh and Blood” (1971); I Walk the Line (1970)
  26. See Ruby Fall” (1969); Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970)
  27. “Wanted Man” Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Disc 3:

  1. Johnny Cash & June CarterIf I Were a Carpenter” (1969); Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970)
  2. “Orphan of the Road” Man in Black (1971)
  3. Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues” (1971); Man in Black (1971)
  4. You’ve Got a New Light Shining in Your Eyes(1971); Man in Black (1971)
  5. “The Battle of New Orleans” America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song (1972)
  6. Don’t Go Near the Water” (1974); Ragged Old Flag (1974)
  7. “King of the Hill” Ragged Old Flag (1974)
  8. “Southern Comfort” Ragged Old Flag (1974)
  9. My Old Kentucky Home (Turpentine and Dandelion Wine)” (1975); John R. Cash (1975)
  10. “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” På Österåker (1973)
  11. Johnny Cash & June Carter “The City of New Orleans” Johnny Cash and His Woman (1973)
  12. Orleans Parish Prison” (1972); Murder (2000)
  13. “Mississippi Sand” A Thing Called Love (1972)
  14. “Nasty Dan” (1974 or ’75); The Stars Come Out on Sesame Street (1979)
  15. The Junkie and the Juicehead (Minus Me)” (1974); The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me (1974)
  16. I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs” (1975); Look at Them Beans (1975)
  17. One Piece at a Time” (1976); One Piece at a Time (1976)
  18. City Jail” (1977); The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)
  19. “Give It Away” The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)
  20. After the Ball” (1978); The Rambler (1977)
  21. “I Don’t Think I Could Take You Back Again” I Would Like to See You Again (1978)
  22. “Without Love” Rockabilly Blues (1980)
  23. “It Ain’t Nothing New Babe” Rockabilly Blues (1980)
  24. “Abner Brown” I Would Like to See You Again (1978)
  25. “Lay Me Down in Dixie” A Believer Sings the Truth (1979)
  26. The Baron” (1981); The Baron (1981)
  27. The Last Gunfighter Ballad” (1977); The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)

Disc 4

  1. “Cindy, I Love You” The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)
  2. “The Lily of the Valley” Personal File (2006)
  3. “No Earthly Good” Personal File (2006)
  4. “It Takes One to Know Me” Personal File (2006)
  5. “Highway Patrolman” Johnny 99 (1983)
  6. “Unwed Fathers” Rainbow (1985)
  7. “The Hobo Song” The Mystery of Life (1991)
  8. “Just the Other Side of Nowhere” Unearthed (2003)
  9. “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” American Recordings (1994)
  10. Delia’s Gone” (1994); American Recordings (1994)
  11. “Bird on a Wire” American Recordings (1994)
  12. “Spiritual” Unchained (1996)
  13. The Highwaymen “Live Forever [acoustic demo version]” The Road Goes On Forever: 10th Anniversary Edition (2005)
  14. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” In Ireland (2009)
  15. “Solitary Man” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  16. “Rowboat” Unchained (1996)
  17. “Memories Are Made of This” Unchained (1996)
  18. “Country Boy” Unchained (1996)
  19. “I’ve Been Everywhere” Unchained (1996)
  20. “Country Trash” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  21. “Field of Diamonds” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  22. “Mary of the Wild Moor” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  23. Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson “Unchained” VH1 Storytellers (1998)
  24. Do LordUnearthed (2003)
  25. I’ll Fly AwayUnearthed (2003)
  26. “Redemption Song” (with Joe Strummer) Unearthed (2003)
  27. “Help Me” American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)

Gospel Music Guide

A guide to gaining an introduction to gospel music (read: afro-american gospel music).  When you get down to it, gospel is the rosetta stone of american music, and there are few styles of american music that haven’t either influenced gospel or taken influence from it.  Hopefully the religious content of the music doesn’t keep people away.  You can be indifferent or even openly hostile to religion and still enjoy this powerful music.

 

Various Artists Collections
Broad overview sets:
Gospel: The Ultimate Collection
Gospel – The Ultimate Collection (2007)

All things considered, this may be the best historical overview of gospel music I’ve seen yet, rivalled or surpassed only by the Jubilation! series mentioned below.  There is definitely a good amount of material from the “golden age of gospel” in the 1950s here, which is something lots of other gospel box sets inexplicably omit.  At four discs, there is a ton of great stuff from a lot of different periods and styles.  This set does stop in the middle of the 1950s though, so you don’t get much if anything anything from the 1960s onward.  But you might want to decide if you like gospel enough first before delving into the 1960s and 70s stuff.  And for an introduction it’s probably best to avoid contemporary gospel anyway.

Jubilation! Volume One: Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 1: Black Gospel (1992)

Jubilation! Volumes 1 & 2 make up probably the best two-disc introduction to gospel available, and together are probably my number one recommendation for someone just beginning to listen to gospel.  Vols. 1 & 2 represent just about all of the major gospel talents, and the song selection is outstanding.  Truly a superb set.  The only caveat I would add is that the focus here is more on modern gospel, and little space is reserved for early 20th Century gospel, but that is actually a good approach for an introductory set like this.

Jubilation! Volume 2: More Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 2: More Black Gospel (1992)

Another great collection of material, similar to Vol. 1.  You will really want to investigate both Vols. 1 & 2, though you could easily start with either one.  There is a Vol. 3, but it focuses on country gospel, which is not the focus of this guide.

The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1
The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1 (2008)

The first of a seven-album series, apparently available only as a digital download (in the USA at least).  It features some great stuff from a variety of eras.  There is a bit more non-quartet, folk/blues material here than many gospel collections.

Gospel Music
Gospel Music (2006)

A great collection.  All awesome stuff.  Maybe the very best single-disc introduction out there.  The only complaint about this set, and it may be a significant one, is the lack of credits for personnel, recording dates, etc.  So you aren’t told which of the two studio versions of Dorothy Love Coates’ “Strange Man” is included here, for instance.

Nuggets of The Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958
Nuggets of the Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958 (2009)

Bob Marovich review: http://www.theblackgospelb…golden-age.html

Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)
Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) (2009)

Like Get Right With God (see below), Fire in My Bones focuses on great but lesser-known recordings.  In a way it’s a kind of alternate history of modern age gospel, documenting especially its vital and continuing tradition of do-it-yourself recordings.  This also covers quite a large time frame (more than six decades).  With some of the basics under your belt, this is a fun and exciting extension to delve deeper into the genre.  The obscurity of the recordings means there is little overlap with other gospel compilations.  A follow-up collection was released as This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982, but definitely start with Fire in My Bones.

Goodbye Babylon
Goodbye, Babylon (2003)

This well-regarded, handsomely packaged collection covers an immense amount of gospel up to about WWII, as well as a select few retro-sounding post-WWII cuts.  That said, this set stops short of covering the modernization of gospel during and beyond its so-called “golden age”.  So despite its massive size, this is just the tip of the iceberg, covering only the early roots of recorded gospel music.  It covers country gospel in addition to afro-american gospel.  If you look into this, the Jubilation! discs mentioned above make for excellent follow-ups, focusing on more modern gospel.

Testify! The Gospel Box
Testify!: The Gospel Box (1999)

One of the few gospel collections I’ve seen that actually takes a crack at summarizing many different periods, including the difficult task of putting together a disc of contemporary gospel (at least through the 1980s I believe).  I haven’t heard this to judge well myself.  But this set cuts a wide swath through many different decades of gospel music.

The Essential Gospel Sampler
The Essential Gospel Sampler (1994)

Good selection of some of the most popular names in gospel.

Ultimate Gospel Supermix

My own “virtual” compilation.

More period-specific, stylistically-specific, or label-specific sets:
American Primitive Vol. I
American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) (1997)

Awesome selection of early pre-WWII gospel.  Lots of this stuff straddles the line between blues and gospel.  Probably a less intimidating option than the Goodbye Babylon set, which seemed to borrow heavily from these selections because of the substantial overlap.  Pair this set with the Gospel Music one above and you’ll get a fairly good overview of both old and modern gospel.

A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920's-1940's
A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920’s-1940’s (1997)

A set that focuses on jubilee gospel groups.

Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets
Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets (2000)

A collection of songs from some of the great gospel “quartets” (they often actually had more than four members) from primarily the later part of the 1940s but also some from the 1950s and one Soul Stirrers track from 1939.   This actually picks up where the A Warrior On the Battlefield set leaves off, stylistically and chronologically.  The liner notes are also quite good in explaining various aspects of the music and the personalities behind it.

The Gospel Sound
The Gospel Sound (1994)

1927-66 sampler of material from Columbia Records (or at least acquired by them prior to this release).

Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954)
Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954) (1997)

Specialty was the premier label for hard gospel quartets in the 1950s.  I could quibble about some of the song selections here, but there is no doubt you get some great music and an introduction to most of the key groups on the Specialty label.  Continued with Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 2 (1954-1963).

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel
Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1988)

Awesome collection of mostly obscure stuff from the golden age.  It’s all high-energy and really fun.  The way this is assembled definitely reminds me of Harry Smith (who created the Anthology of American Folk Music), and what a collection of gospel from this period would probably sound like if he ever got around to putting one together.

Golden Age of Gospel
Golden Age of Gospel (2001)

The premier gospel label of the 1950s was Specialty.  But Vee-Jay took over that role around 1959 and held the crown until the label went bankrupt in 1966, when HOB and then Savoy took over that role.  Of course there were other notable labels like Nashboro and Peacock operating throughout these periods too.  But for late 50s/early 60s stuff, you can’t go wrong with Vee-Jay.  The label represented another step in the ongoing pattern of changes in gospel styles.  The “hard” gospel of Specialty was giving way to smoother, more intricate arrangements with more pronounced instrumental accompaniment.

I mention this particular compilation because it is only one disc, but it may be somewhat hard to find and it seems at least some tracks included here are live ones instead of the original studio recordings.  A more extensive collection of Vee-Jay gospel is the four disc series that begins with The Best of Vee-Jay Gospel, Volume One.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966 (1997)

Gospel music played a big role in the 1950s/60s civil rights or freedom movement in the United States.  Here’s an interesting look at that role.

The Best of Nashboro Gospel
Best of Nashboro Gospel (1995)

Nashboro, and associated labels like Creed, put out a lot of good gospel over a relatively long period of time.  It was fairly common for big names in gospel to switch record labels through the years.  The demise of Vee-Jay records in 1966 sent many top stars to labels like Nashboro and HOB.

This Is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends
This is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends (2006)
Gospel's Finest
Gospel’s Finest (1992)

If you ask me, most contemporary gospel from the 1980s onward is not worthwhile.  But don’t let my views cloud your judgment.  Here’s a set of 1980s gospel.  Decide for yourself.  If you want more recent gospel, you can look into the “WOW Gospel” series that begins with Wow Gospel 1998 (though you want the “Gospel” series not “Hits”, “Worship”, etc.).

Individual Artist Selections
People totally unfamiliar with gospel music may want to listen to a various artists collection first, but here are some single-artist selections that I find to be particularly worth checking out:
The Golden Gate Quartet Collection

The Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet Collection (2005)

The Golden Gate Quartet represents a different era than lots of other music on this list.  They had jazz-inflected rhythms that stretched gospel beyond earlier forms, but compared to more modern acts the tempos were slower and there were not really any lead solos.  But this is still great music.  There are certainly plenty of different Golden Gate Quartet compilations available.  This two-disc one seems to capture a lot of their best recordings, though in some ways it’s still incomplete.

He's My Rock: Their Early Sides

The Soul Stirrers

He’s My Rock: Their Early Sides (2003)

The early Soul Stirrers with R.H. Harris were the single most influential gospel group.  Ever.  More than any other group, they blazed a trail away from the jubilee style that had dominated gospel for many decades–a style epitomized by The Golden Gate Quartet–and toward hard gospel of the 1950s.  R.H. Harris made lead soloists the stars of gospel “quartets”, which had been expanded past just four members.  This collection features a tremendous amount of really great music.

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

The Dixie Hummingbirds

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 (2001)

The best gospel of the 1940s is right here.  Lead singer Ira Tucker was just unbelievably good.  He was sort of gospel’s first “rock star” in my book.  Maybe he was just the first rock star period, running down the aisles, jumping off stages…

Love Lifted Me/My Rock

Swan Silvertones

Love Lifted Me / My Rock (1991)

Though maybe I have a sentimental attachment, I would say The Swan Silvertones were the single greatest gospel group ever.  They had it all.  This set of hard gospel from the 1950s is absolutely essential.

Oh Lord, STand By Me / MArching Up to Zion

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion (1991)

Another great set of hard gospel from the 1950s.

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns

Mahalia Jackson

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991)

Probably the single most famous gospel singer ever.  A voice so powerful few could ever come close.  This collection makes a good introduction even though it does not cover recordings from the early part of her career (for that, look to How I Got Over: The Apollo Sessions 1946-1954).

Books
The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times by Anthony Heilbut
How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel by Horace C. Boyer
Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music by W.K. McNeil (ed.)
Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943 by Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, and Howard W. Rye
Gospel Records: 1943-1969 by Cedric W. Hayes and Robert Laughton
Web Links
Just Moving On Blog
The Black Gospel Blog
Holy Ghost Blog
Sinner’s Crossroads Radio Show
Black Gospel Collector’s Forum

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones Decca LK 4605 (1964)


The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair.  It is full of energetic takes on American blues.  The group plays with enthusiasm.  Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here.  Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable.  This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own.  Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect.  They got better quickly.  What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.

Ultimate Gospel Supermix (Part I)

American Primitive Vol. I

Here is my take on a “virtual” single disc gospel overview compilation.  Neophytes, I dare you to listen to this and not become a fan.  I’ve tried to link up more readily available CD collections rather than hard-to-find LPs.  Will be continued with my Gospel Mix, Part II, Gospel Mix, Part III, Gospel Mix, Part IV and Gospel Mix, Part V lists.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am an atheist.

 

1 The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of
Rev. B.L. Wightman with Lottie Kimbrough & Congregation – “Live the Life”

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Super Rarities & Unissued Gems of the 1920s and 30s (2006)

2 Anthology of American Folk Music
Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – “Judgment”

Anthology of American Folk Music (1997)

3 The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson – “John the Revelator

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1993)

4 American Primitive Vol. I
Blind Roosevelt Graves & Brother – “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)

American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) (1997)

5 The Golden Gate Quartet Collection
Golden Gate Quartet“Bedside of a Neighbor”

The Golden Gate Quartet Collection (2005)

6 The Harmonizing Four 1943-1954
Richmond’s Harmonizing Four – “Everytime I Feel the Spirit”

The Harmonizing Four 1943-1954 (2006)

7 Milky White Way: The Legendary Recordings 1947-1952
The TrumpeteersMilky White Way

Milky White Way: The Legendary Recordings 1947-1952 (2002)

8 Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950
Dixie Hummingbirds“Move On Up a Little Higher [alt. take]”

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 (2001)

9 I Want to Know
The Silverlight Quartet (with Brother Cecil L. Shaw) – “Jesus Lend Me a Helping Hand in Your Name

I Want to Know (2006)

10 Love Lifted Me/My Rock
The Swan Silvertone Singers – “Trouble In My Way

Love Lifted Me / My Rock (1991)

11 Oh Lord, STand By Me / MArching Up to Zion
The Blind Boys of AlabamaLiving For My Jesus

Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion (1991)

12 Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers
The Soul Stirrers – “It Won’t Be Very Long

Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers (1991)

13
1947-1954
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi“(I’ll Be) In the Wilderness”

1947-1954 (2007)

14 The Best of the Sensational Nightingales
The Sensational NightingalesA Closer Walk With Thee

The Best of The Sensational Nightingales (1991)

15 When Gospel Was Gospel
The Davis Sisters – “Jesus Steps Right In”

When Gospel Was Gospel (2005)

16 Get on Board
The Original Gospel Harmonettes – “I’ll Be With Thee

Get on Board (1992)

17 Get Right With God: Hot Gospel
Sister O.M. Terrell – “I’m Going to that City”

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1988)

18 The Best of the Vee-Jay Years
The Staple SingersI’m Coming Home (Parts 1 & 2)

The Best of the Vee-Jay Years (2007)

19 Gospel Train
Sister Rosetta Tharpe“Cain’t [sic] No Grave Hold My Body Down”

Gospel Train (1956)

20 The Best of The Caravans
The Caravans“Your Friend”

The Best of The Caravans (1998)

21 Give Me My FLowers / Heart Warming Spirituals
The ConsolersWaiting for My Child

Give Me My Flowers / Heart Warming Spirituals (1993)

22 Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns
Mahalia Jackson – “In the Upper Room

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991)

23 Oh Happy Day: The Best of the Edwin Hawkins Singers
The Edwin Hawkins SingersOh, Happy Day

Oh Happy Day!: The Best of the Edwin Hawkins Singers (2001)

 

24 Speaking in Tongues
The Holmes Brothers“I Shall Not Walk Alone”

Speaking in Tongues (2001)

 

Beck – Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Beck Stereopathetic Soulmanure Flipside FLIP60 (1994)


Some bag on Stereopathetic Soulmanure as an inferior Beck release, but I think it’s easily one of his best albums.  It’s a little rough in patches, but the eclectic songwriting is usually good and there is even some fairly good guitar playing.  Beck is all over the place.  From found sounds, to noise rock, to country, to folk, he tries a little of everything.  But he manages to pull it off.  In fact, Mellow Gold was a big step down from the creativity on display here.  Beck hadn’t yet hooked up with hip-hop producers but it’s no real loss with what is found here.  Is this juvenile?  Yes, of course.  But it manages to faithfully capture the sense of looking for something that resonates and finding the process of the search at least as interesting as anything found along the way.  This has the feel of bored Southern California kids making their own entertainment — not unlike what Ariel Pink would do a few years later.

Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando

Accelerando

Vijay Iyer TrioAccelerando ACT Music (2012)


A more mature Vijay Iyer offers something the younger Iyer did not.  He melds angular, modernist attacks with smooth, easy sensibilities in a way that avoids both stilted transitions and empty new age chamber jazz posturing–sometimes the nagging limitations of his early work.  Accelerando features all his strengths and none of his weaknesses.  It certainly helps that bassist Stephan Crump provides a very prominent drive to the music.  Covering some pop music (“Human Nature”) also reveals a grounded sense of humor.  Such little touches evidence the magnanimous spirit imbuing the proceedings.  This is music that is as accessible as it is vibrant.  It may well be Iyer’s best offering yet.