Category Archives: Reviews

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main ST

Exile on Main ST

The Rolling StonesExile on Main ST Rolling Stones Records COC 69100 (1972)

A sprawling thing, Exile On Main ST runs through blues, county, gospel, soul and rock with reckless abandon. Exile is a stellar affirmation of American music, strangely enough coming from some boys from the U.K.

Most of the album writhes in murk (akin to Sly & the Family’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On). Jagger’s vocals sound muffled. Half the time you can’t hear a damn thing he sings. “I Just Want to See His Face” sounds like you stumbled onto some backwoods gospel revival tearing through what turns out to be an anti-gospel song. Jagger moans in front of some backup singers who scream passionately but seem caught on record only by chance. That mystique of careless luck gives Exile its grandeur. The entire album stays true to its desire for unrefined expression.

This is basically the most important Stones album. It would be hard to predict the Stones would have done anything in the 70s after they kicked founder Brian Jones out of the band (and Jones died shortly thereafter). Mick Taylor finds himself settled into the band, finally. His slide guitar works magic on the masterpiece of uncontrollable longing and charismatic bombast “All Down the Line.”

Backup singers belt out harmonies behind Jagger with horns blasting in a fever. Even Billy Preston stretches out for a guest spot on organ and piano on “Shine A Light.” Every piece of Exile comes together.

None of the individual songs achieved quite the popularity of earlier hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” because they are so uniformly brilliant. The album is still greater than the sum of its magnificent parts. Battered losers and hopeless wrecks parade through honky-tonks and the open road, holding on to what they can. Like the Fellini-esque Robert Frank photo collage on the album jacket, freaks stand placed in a precarious kind of order. When you see a song named “Soul Survivor,” you can hardly take the Stones’ word that they in fact “survived.” Rather, listening to the song reveals they barely made it this time (and may not the next). It’s easy to identify with the characters’ endless attempts to find compassion.

Rebellion is a prerequisite for rock and roll. The German artist Joseph Beuys said art is the science of freedom. In the Twentieth Century at least, the pursuit of freedom necessarily involved the rebel attitude so deeply ingrained in the fabric of rock and roll. The Rolling Stones certainly did their part. They always slid in some raunchy songs that chipped away at the establishment. “Loving Cup” and “Rocks Off” are sleazier tunes than they appear and reveal much more than idle ramblings of libertines. Their vices haunt them as they search for something to hold onto. They testify to the simple joys of common failures. You also have the deconstructionist spin of English boys redefining the musical traditions of another land. The Stones carried with the basic ideals of American music while they wandered into new territory.

An album of this breadth and consistency is a rare thing indeed. Exile is never too polished. It is at the same time familiar and new. It seems so real because the results are so fragile.

Derek Bailey – Ballads


Derek BaileyBallads Tzadik TZ 7607 (2002)

It’s interesting how some people can walk into an art museum and say they would only respect an abstract expressionist if they could paint in a literal, classical way. But does anyone have a requirement that a classicist be able to paint like an abstract expressionist? For that matter, why should an artist have to be either/or?

Derek Bailey is a master of creating sound from a guitar. For him to do an album of ballads might seem like a waste of talent. But is it such a waste? Ballads is an amazing album. It’s one that belongs with the most important work of the most important artists. This isn’t just a success for Derek Bailey but a grand achievement of the highest order.

To begin with, Bailey can set hearts aflutter with only the briefest use of melodies. He moves quite deftly between furious free improvisation and flowing chord progressions.

Quite simply, Bailey makes more of the ballads he plays. None are reduced or trivialized. The ballads don’t hinder Bailey’s improvisation. They are part of an evolving music placing no more relative value on any particular forms. What we have is a total recreation of how structure fits into a program of improvisation. It is fair to say this was no easy task. Ballads come with certain inherent limits. Certain rhythms and certain tempos can overpower a ballad. Percussive qualities too are generally hindered by the delicate melodies and narrow harmonic flexibility of a ballad. Of course, these used to be the inherent limits of ballads. There are limits no more.

Ballads simply has me beguiled, enchanted. There are three Hoagy Carmichael songs, not to mention “Stella By Starlight,” “Body and Soul” and two renditions each of “Gone With the Wind” and “Rockin’ Chair.” In a cunning little way, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” concludes the disc. Hearing the whole disc, I feel like nothing was taken from me, everything given to me. The timeless nature resounds with each pluck and bang on Bailey’s guitar. When his strings resonate, so too does the shapeless possibility of playing ballads without limits. Hearing limitless music like this is most definitely a captivating experience.

Bailey says, “It was Zorn’s idea.” John Zorn and his Tzadik record label deserve much credit then. Ballads isn’t the kind of record you would expect Bailey to make. That perhaps is a large measure of what makes it such a success. Making a record unlike his others tends to eliminate an easy consistency with what he knows of himself. Ironically, Bailey takes a huge risk by entering familiar ground. He opens himself up to all kinds of judgments when he adds a reference point playing a standard. Preserving his natural freedom amidst the structures of these ballads requires some choice of what he himself can do while still advancing the overall structure. If this approach makes Bailey guilty of violating the rules of both balladeering and free improv, then he is a great criminal. We need that kind of spirit.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys’ Christmas Album Capitol T-2164 (1964)

The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album is short, at less than thirty minutes, but has the classic “Little Saint Nick” and some other good songs (“Merry Christmas, Baby,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are”).  It’s decent for what it is, but it’s nothing essential.  The songs with orchestral backing sound almost like instrumental tracks cut for Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby on which somebody slapped Beach Boys vocals.

Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance


Jim O’RourkeInsignificance Drag City dc202cd (2001)

I’m not entirely sure why, but somehow Insignificance seems to be one of the great albums of its age.  As a lyricist O’Rourke may not be Bob Dylan, even if most of the time he’s channeling the same mean spirit that populates “Positively Fourth Street” or Blood on the Tracks.  He’s also probably not anyone’s idea of a charismatic singer.  But pairing the underachieving, utter non-event of the words and vocals with the the nuanced, finely orchestrated — yet still hard driving — instrumentals and arrangements is a masterstroke of genius.  Dylan carried the soul of the Beat generation to someplace new.  O’Rourke carried the angst of alternative and indie rock to its pointedly ironic pinnacle.  This music has an empty sophistication and sense of aimlessness that mark it as something totally representative of its time.  I find the fact that it’s somewhat unnoticed to be all the more a hallmark of the diffuseness of everything it stands for.

Cecil Taylor – The Willisau Concert

The Willisau Concert

Cecil TaylorThe Willisau Concert Intakt Records CD 072 (2002)

Quite possibly the most high-fidelity Cecil Taylor solo piano recording in existence.  It would be hard to find another artist as deserving of such attention to detail.  The performance is quite excellent too.  The speed, percussive force, and density of the music provide an intensity that is very nearly that of Taylor’s monumental 1970s recordings Silent Tongues and Indent, despite his advancing years.  It’s so great to see someone as boldly daring and iconoclastic as Taylor still able to keep making music like this, and for music that has changed so little over the years to still sound so fresh.  It goes to show that with enough conviction the power of statements like this almost never fades.