Category Archives: Reviews

Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis

From Elvis in Memphis

Elvis PresleyFrom Elvis in Memphis RCA Victor LSP-4155 (1969)


From Elvis in Memphis was recorded after Elvis made his comeback on a 1968 TV special.  It is widely regarded as one of his best albums–maybe the very best–from his later career or even his entire career.  That’s something.  On closer inspection this is a little different from that, but still amusing and intriguing.  This was the beginning of, or at least the immediate precursor to, the Vegas act, sequined jumpsuit period.   He was singing differently than he used to, with a smoother, rounder tone heavier on vibrato, taking away all the sharpness of his earliest recordings.  In a broader cultural context, this album came at the absolute pinnacle of the good times for the American working man.  Ordinary folks had their chance to obtain a small, bastardized piece of the leisure class lifestyle, and Elvis was there ready to grow fat and lazy with them. What From Elvis in Memphis offers is an attempt to portray a kind of “ordinary” life, street-wise and gritty, dressed up enough to keep the peons interested.  It’s a life of huge cars, electric home appliances, and a growing sense of deserved (yet limited) decadence.  The thing is, Elvis is always hesitant to go too far.  This is an album that doesn’t really want to get its hands dirty, or at least not too dirty.  So it can only look on its subjects from a distance, never quite getting there.  “In the Ghetto” is a perfect example.  It’s a good Elvis performance, but there are better versions that shed some light on the one here.  Candi Staton did a version (that Elvis liked) that goes that extra distance; it feels like it’s sung from the ghetto rather than looking in on it.  Then there is a version that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds did.  The Bad Seeds’ version is reflective of Elvis’ performance, more so than of the song’s lyrical content, with Nick Cave singing it ironically on the basis of its kitsch value but always threatening to make it serious at any moment.  The songs on From Elvis in Memphis are mostly quite mediocre and the band forgettably professional.  But there is still something here in spite of that.  There is a charming pomposity in this music.  The vision it conjures up is the sort of humble guy growing up, making it big and looking back to those folks that got him there, as if kneeling down to deign some poor kid to admire his jeweled ring (hey, maybe you can make it too kid).  It’s like giving that kid, that kind of listener, this music out of a sense of charity.  It’s the subtle complacency behind that sort of a perspective that led to the downfall of the good times it enjoyed.  Rather than going the extra distance and being the sort of honest, humble music that might show a solidarity and adherence to the values of the common man, this album really takes the sort of view that sees itself as standing apart, looking back, acknowledging a divide from its origins and its audience.  Yet the lasting value of this work is that it represents the dreams and hopes of its times, even though those dreams and hopes are flawed and their achievement somewhat hollow.  There’s no denying that songs like “Long Black Limousine,” “Power of My Love,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “After Loving You,” and “In the Ghetto” are all solid expressions of these things–with much of the best material congregated on a very solid side two of the LP.  If this commentary means anything, consider it in the context of Orson Welles‘ film Vérités et mensonges [F for Fake], the notion that the act of forgery says something in and of itself about motives that lead humans to create art and artifice.

Elvis Presley – On Stage: February 1970

On Stage: February, 1970

Elvis PresleyOn Stage: February 1970 RCA Victor LSP-4362 (1970)


Although widely acknowledged as a cultural phenomenon that transformed America with his charisma and music in the 1950s, Elvis’ career got off-track in the 1960s as he focused on making terrible (but profitable) movies rather than making music.  In 1968 he made a comeback with a TV music special, followed by a Vegas engagement with a new band.  As it turns out, the Vegas act came to define Elvis’ later career.  It was a glitzy show, with a horn section, backing singers.  Elvis had taken to wearing gaudy jumpsuits too.  This music had now become a sort of high-energy, rock- and soul-inflected, southern style of crooning.  No one had really done anything like that before.  It was a period when rural-influenced musical acts could find wide acceptance, with former Sun Records label-mate Johnny Cash having a major network TV show at the same time.  Elvis sings remarkably well here.  The results are probably more consistent than his much-lauded From Elvis in Memphis album, even if this never reaches the greatest heights of that earlier studio effort.  One notable characteristic is the lack of the customary mid-set batch of Elvis’ past hits, which many aficionados deem the least interesting part of most Elvis shows and live recordings of the era.  Although Vegas acts have become something of a cliché, Elvis was a pioneer in the form.  Countless musicians, down to even Bob Dylan, have tried to emulate this kind of grandiose entertainment, but few if any came close to Elvis.  That the man became a cultural icon not once but twice in one lifetime, all before the age of 40, is nothing short of amazing.  Consider this Elvis’ best live album, and possibly one of his best albums period.

The Birthday Party – Junk Yard

Junk Yard

The Birthday PartyJunk Yard 4AD CAD 207 (1982)


The Birthday Party reached a peak with Junk Yard. It soars on a pulsing energy that never fades. It is goth rock. It is punk. Frightening rockabilly. Angular funk. Gospel and blues. Demonized cabaret lounge jazz. These and other styles collide in a gruesome, purposeless, and—above all—glorious spectacle. But the darkness in which this music dwells is entirely stable. It is confident, at least. The album is mixed to emphasize the low end and the high end, with little mid-range. There are no compromises.

The Thatcher-Reagan era has, in many ways, turned out to be the beginning of the end (or at least another milestone in the world’s continued march towards an easily avoidable doom). Junk Yard plays like The Birthday Party intuitively knew this. The slow groove of “She’s Hit” reveals from the beginning that this group was more aware than most. They absorbed the maddening energy of the times, without becoming bound to them. Unlike the living dead of the world, who are modeled on an image of the past, The Birthday Party were in a state of regenerative flux, continually rebuilding something morbidly happy from the decay.

“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” is a sleazy literary come-on, and Nick Cave sings, “Where for art thou baby-face.” Still, the words come out more like a warning to a future victim issued too late. And yet, The Birthday Party can be trusted. Despite rubbing out simple hopes and pleasant dreams, the band’s resolve is never spent. If something on this album doesn’t arouse something in you, then you might already be spiritually bankrupt. But either way, at least you will wonder what you are made of.

Barry Adamson guests on “Kiss Me Black” (filling in for the jailed Tracy Pew). His bass blasts to the forefront immediately with mangled tones that bend enough to engross listeners as much as whole songs or albums often do. Matched with Cave belting out, “Hey hey hey hey,” the song reveals no intention of relenting. The song is a small representation of all the band was.

Easily the most important rock band to emerge from Australia, aside from The Bee Gees, The Birthday Party later disbanded after recording a few EPs but no further full-length albums. While there is a saying about wicks that burn brightest burning the shortest, that quip doesn’t quite capture what The Birthday Party were about. They were a black hole that sucked life and the universe into a seeming nothingness. What that leaves us with is anyone’s guess. In a black hole, no known laws of nature apply.

Elvis – An Afternoon in the Garden

An Afternoon in the Garden

ElvisAn Afternoon in the Garden RCA 07863 67457-2 (1997)


Recorded during the height of Elvis’ “Vegas” show era, An Afternoon in the Garden presents an afternoon show recorded June 10, 1972 at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in New York City.  It was part of a sold-out four show stand.  The evening show of June 10th was previously released as Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden.  There are plenty of live Elvis albums from this era (Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, On Stage: February 1970, Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, not to mention plenty of live cuts on That’s the Way It Is et al.), and most are quite good (uh, not Having Fun With Elvis on Stage though).  Guitarist James Burton really gets a chance to shine here, even getting space for a psychedelic wah-wah solo on the Presley favorite “Polk Salad Annie.”  The set list is almost the same as on Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, minus “The Impossible Dream” but with a few additional tunes here.  For that matter the set list is similar to many other Presley live albums.  But these are all great tunes.  What makes this set so amazing is that you get some of the soulful bombast of On Stage: February 1970, some of the grandiose theatrics of Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, plus some of the kicking rock drive of Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, all rolled into one perfectly balanced package.  Elvis just commands this show, with every little flubbed lyric chuckled off and re-purposed as an opportunity to charm the audience.  As with most other Elvis live albums of the era, this is a complete show that plays (almost) like being there in person.  Pop music rarely if ever had a figure like Elvis who could deliver with spectacular feeling and aplomb the biggest, brightest and best hopes and emotions of salt of the Earth folks who quite rightly dubbed him their king.  This is a damn fine album, recommended for anyone.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – The Tao of Mad Phat (Fringe Zones)

The Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones>

Steve Coleman and Five ElementsThe Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones> Novus 63160-2 (1993)


Steve Coleman.  There are perhaps few figures in 1990s jazz quite as pretentious.  He indisputably was a central figure of that time.  So many, from his now well-known early cohorts like Cassandra Wilson to later figures like Vijay Iyer, have taken influence from him.  He practiced a style of music he called “M-Base”, short for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations.  Now, okay, I just called it a style.  Coleman has this to say on the matter: “Music critics have constantly stated that M-Base is a musical style and this is not true.  Since the beginning of time critics have by and large been unable to deal with any creative expression.  M-Base is a way of thinking about creating music, it is not the music itself.”  Mmmm, right, okay Coleman.  M-Base merely fits the accepted definition of “style”, but he say it’s not a style.  I guess this just puts him in the same category as teenage garage bands that sound just like The Stooges but refuse the connection and insist they are totally unique man!  You know, the kind of adolescent posturing that tries to talk a big game but does not deliver at nearly the same level, though, in fairness, is perhaps just due to being inarticulate and lacking self-awareness–dooming them to repeat musical history.  But that aside, Mr. Coleman should go read Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, who famously said “the map is not the territory”, and then reflect on the fact that a table is not a table, it is merely something that is collectively understood by the word “table” and the word is not the thing itself.  Now that I’ve sufficiently blown your mind, writing more about Coleman and this album is probably a fucking waste of time, but, frankly, I don’t give a shit.  Come back and read the rest later.  I’m making a goddamn point here and it needs to be made.  Coleman has often used a trick much like many modern economists and their veneer of mathematics used to conceal their faulty assumptions and circular logic (or like Ornette Coleman with his “harmolodics” for that matter), which hides some rather simple ideas behind a bunch of technical jargon and big words.

Tao of Mad Phat has to be among Coleman’s best efforts from the 90s.  It was recorded “live” in studio before a small, select audience (not unlike Beach Boys’ Party!).  The hallmarks of the man’s sound are all here: lots of electric instruments and synthetic sounds.  The focus is on shifting rhythmic textures, with things like melody a mere by-product of the rhythms.  But then there is “Incantation”, which features a number of guest spots rather than his usual backing band, and which feels different in many respects from the typical M-Base style.

The basic sound though is kind of cyclic.  It’s like James Brown and Maceo Parker, sort of.  Though the focus on rhythm gives the music a narrow objective that lacks the daring of Miles Davis‘ funky fusion of the 1970s that took the limitless possibilities of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic music and applied them to jazz.  Steve Coleman usually took the sonic textures of fourth-tier 1980s funk and incorporated them into a jazz setting.  The tendency was to produce listless schlock like Black Science.  But Tao of Mad Phat isn’t listless at all.  The atmosphere provided by the staged “live” setting gives the band a chance to stretch and adjust their rhythms in a fluid manner, without the claustrophobic search for perfect meter, pitch and other distractions to spoil things.  For a change, performance takes precedence over theory.

There is the other issue of the “spirituality” of Coleman’s music.  This album avoids much direct expression of it in the performances.  It’s noticeable mostly in the titles of the songs.  Part of this element comes from a very vaguely Pan-Africanist view of the African diaspora, with similarly vague allusions to Asian religions.  The Afrocentrist elements were hardly unique to Coleman, as this was the era of One for All and that whole aesthetic.  While there is something noble, perhaps, in Coleman’s intentions, most often the problem is that stacked next to, say, Pandit Pran Nath or lots of other purely religious music, Steve Coleman’s stuff just…sounds…so…cheesy.  He comes across as the guy with statutes of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and Ganesh in front of his house, because, well, he values all religions, and he shows it with plaster lawn ornaments.  It seems slapped on top, without deep foundations in the music.  Here at least, that whole aspect of the music is pretty easily disregarded.

I can’t exactly say I’m a huge fan, but this is a pretty good album, and it’s worth it if you have an interest in the upside of some of the most stultifying forces of the halcyon days of 1990s jazz.

Miles Davis – Big Fun

Big Fun

Miles DavisBig Fun Columbia PG 32866  (1974)


It is somewhat amazing to think that despite the intense creative peak Miles Davis achieved in the early 1970s, On the Corner from 1972 was the last proper studio album he consciously assembled for roughly ten years, until The Man With the Horn in 1981.  Everything in between was either archival in nature, a live recording, or, like Big Fun and Get Up With It, an amalgamation of leftovers spanning a period of many years.  When it comes to Big Fun, rather than taking the rather disparate material — from the moody, atmospheric “Great Expectations/Orange Lady” and “Lonely Fire” from the late-1960s Bitches Brew era to the grinding rock of “Go Ahead John” from the Jack Johnson period to the murky, paranoid, Eastern-flavored “Ife” that was recorded following the On the Corner sessions — and either accepting the incongruity or else massaging the material in the editing process to homogenize it, Davis and producer Teo Macero take a third path.  What happens is that they take raw material as if in a highly elemental form, and Macero uses studio effects and cut-and-paste techniques to transform a lot of it into something different than any of its origins.  This is perhaps most apparent in the harshly chopped and distorted editing of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s solo(s) and Jack DeJohnette‘s drums on “Go Ahead John.”  This was remarkable stuff.  The editing process was a conscious and audible part of the final work.  There were precedents.  Modern composers had made similar experiments.  For instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Davis greatly admired) stitched together national anthems for his Hymnen, and Steve Reich chopped up a spoken word sample to create Come Out previously.  But Davis and Macero were taking those techniques and trying to apply them to popular music.  This was meant for the masses!

Often relegated to at best a second-class status, Big Fun is a better record than that spotted critical history suggests.  Yet it also isn’t the most immediately impressive entry into the long line of great 70s fusion albums from Miles.  Most listeners will perhaps want to put this further down the list of Davis albums of the period to check out.  But bear in mind that if anything from the period hooks you, you will almost inevitably seek out the rest, and Big Fun definitely earns its place in that search.  This has a more agitated and fiery flavor than the earliest of Davis fusion efforts in the late 1960s, but also a more ambient quality than much of the dense and funky early/mid 1970s recordings.  If there was a way to convey the tumult of the times, this would have to be it though.  It’s a record that isn’t always satisfying, at least not for more than moments.  If that sort of approach isn’t for you, then the album won’t necessarily be for you.

Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes (From the Underground)

Black Codes (From the Underground)

Wynton MarsalisBlack Codes (From the Underground) Columbia FC 40009 (1985)


Wynton Marsalis has become the poster child of the conservative movement in post-1970s jazz, which tends to view the genre as something entirely mapped out with well defined boundaries that has survived certain “failed” formulations that are only worthy of being derided or ignored.  He is relied upon as the “definitive” musician-commentator on jazz.  And so he has been regularly featured in films, etc. pontificating about the meaning of the music as a whole.  Naturally he does so from within the narrow confines of his own definitions of what jazz is and should be.  And, naturally, I hate his fucking guts for that.  But Black Codes (From the Underground) is still a success.  In spite of its scarcely-concealed agenda of skipping over all jazz history since Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the mid-1960s, there is conviction behind it.  This doesn’t exactly wow or thrill me, or even surprise me.  I still have to admit that this is a good album.

Johnny Cash – America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song

America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song

Johnny CashAmerica: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song Columbia KC 31645 (1972)


The early 1970s were a turbulent time in America, with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam war, the biggest economic crisis the Western world had faced in many decades, continued fights to implement integration, women’s liberation, and much more.  Oh, and there was a lot of stuff happening to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the nation’s independence from England in 1776.  Along comes Johnny Cash, with this album, depicting him on the cover in a military-style jacket on a decrepit farmhouse porch behind a flag, and subtitled “A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song”.  The theme is American history.  It looks pretty heavy-handed on paper.  The thing is, he does a pretty good job with this concept.  He re-records a few tunes he had done before, and performs an assortment of other songs, mostly new ones written himself.  There is a lot of between-song spoken dialog, and even a recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Some of these tracks were recorded exclusively for the astronauts on the Apollo 14 space mission (the one where Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the Moon), but ended up here instead.  Like much of Cash’s early 70s output, the songs have a minimalist, folky feel, and there are only a couple of cuts with his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm (“Paul Revere,” “These Are My People”).  And while this looks a lot like a very rudimentary recitation of the standard “story of America” taught to little kids in grade school, it ends up being slightly more nuanced than that.  “Big Foot,” about the Wounded Knee Massacre, wasn’t something frequently taught in school history classes — would Cash have dug Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States when it came out years later?  This release predated the Pine Ridge Incident, erupting in response to the anniversary of Wounded Knee, by only a matter of months.  Yet Cash elsewhere celebrates genocidal madmen like Christopher Columbus, so there are still contradictions.  Listeners who want Johnny in good voice, recorded well with a crisp and talented backing band will probably find lots to like here.  Those who focus on lyrics more than the instrumental contributions probably will care a lot less for this one.  In any event, this was one of Cash’s last concepts albums.

Johnny Cash – Ragged Old Flag

Ragged Old Flag

Johnny CashRagged Old Flag Columbia KC 32917 (1974)


Johnny Cash’s recordings of the 1970s aren’t usually regarded well.  He seemed to struggle with issues that tend to face every big star eventually:  what happens when you’ve been around the business for long enough that popular tastes have changed and new trends and fads have come along?  Stay true to what you always did (even if that is less popular) or adapt to the times (can you pull it off)?  Interestingly, Cash tries a little of both with Ragged Old Flag.

The title track finds Cash displaying his most chauvinistic, nationalist populism, which is presented as mere patriotism during the midst of the Watergate scandal.  It’s always hard to pin down Cash on politics, but it is common for people who lived through the Watergate era and fully understood Nixon’s crimes to insist that the president shouldn’t have gone to prison or been removed from office, just out of some vague sense of “patriotism”.  Cash seems to take a similar view, at least by implication.  It’s maybe also worth noting that Cash had met Nixon personally by this time, and had performed for him at the White House.

The album often recalls the “old” sound of Cash’s 50s recordings.  But Charlie Bragg is the co-producer, and he seems responsible for providing a more contemporary country flair to some of the material here, most notably “Southern Comfort.”  Cash has good support from Earl Scruggs on banjo and The Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals throughout.  Some of the folkier moments build on what was achieved on Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Man in Black too, with a little more slick and polished sound.

Cash wrote (or co-wrote) everything here.  Some of those efforts are worthy of note.  “Don’t Go Near the Water” is an environmentalist paean.  It’s something unusual for a country star.  Then there is “King of the Hill,” a song that prefigures a lot of what Bruce Springsteen would become known for a few years down the line.  It’s a song about “manly” men who want to succeed in life and go to the coal mines rather than the cotton mill to do it.  But by the end, the song conveys that eventually all the coal will be gone, and if you’re not dead already you can call yourself king of the hill.  But it’s a kind of sad prize, and Cash very subtly makes it an ironic one, implying (without clearly stating it, except through a little chuckle) that maybe it was all a waste.

This album is among the better of Cash’s efforts of the decade.  Much of side two runs a little thinner after the good “Lonesome to the Bone,” but side one in particular delivers some good performances and songwriting with energy and conviction.  This isn’t the place to start with Cash.  Still, admirers may want to take a listen at some point as it would be a full twenty years before he made another album this good.

The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years

The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years

Various ArtistsThe Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years MGM P6S 5878 (1973)


While showtunes and soundtrack music might not be things that I personally enjoy all that much, you can’t go wrong with this set if you want an introduction to those genres.  I really respect what was done here.  From a historical perspective this collection of recordings is amazing.  It features some of the most well-known music of the 20th Century.  People who wouldn’t consider themselves music listeners in the slightest probably still know the melody to “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, or could recognize “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”.  The common denominator of this music is its simplicity.  In terms of rhythm, nothing here is beyond a remedial level.  The melodies are all straightforward and uncomplicated.  The vocals often lack much subtlety, but instead focus on brute force vibrato.  The instrumental film music on the final two “bonus” discs deals only in broad strokes, with lots of syrupy string arrangements and melodramatic surges.  Despite the enormous popular recognition of this music, it would seem that already most of it is nothing more than an anachronism.  The theatrical and vaudevillian aspects of this stuff — cartoonish, larger-than-life emoting that doesn’t leave any room for a reaction other than the one intended — isn’t all that common outside of Bollywood just a few decades on.  It’s a wonder how tastes change so fast.  I guess that Bollywood comment might make for an interesting comparison: is this music something that is borne out of socioeconomic conditions to fill a gap between the general public’s cultural sophistication and its more rapidly rising disposable income?  At its worst, that is probably exactly what it does.  But here we get some of the best and brightest moments, where there’s something more at work.  “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are so well known because they simply are great songs.  And there are plenty more great songs here.  There was also a book of the same name by Lawrence B. Thomas released just before this LP box set, which might be of interest.  There are no liner notes to speak of with this set, so perhaps the book has more information about the music (I haven’t read it).