Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flatt & Scruggs: All Time Great Recordings

OK, I know it's not fair to judge an entire career on the strength of a greatest hits Lp, but you've gotta start somewhere, right? True confession time: I've come to country music late in my musical life. In my youth, I was a rocker, period - there was only rock and roll. Classical? Obsolete. Country? Hick music. Especially hillbilly stuff like Flatt & Scruggs -- that was music for a generation of Dust Bowl refugees, as far as I was concerned. Wisdom doesn't always come with age, but often, you do have to wait a while until all the parts of your brain fill out, yeah?

So, again, I've come to country and roots music late. I think it started in the 90s with the Alt-Country movement - I was playing Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Golden Smog on the radio, and these guys had a sound I liked a lot. Which led to digging further into their influences, and hearing Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. Which in turn led to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And from there... well, here we are.

Now I'm first to admit that bluegrass, as a style, is an acquired taste. Pickin' and grinnin' don't go down so easy with everyone. But if you don't appreciate Flatt and Scruggs, you can't really appreciate the Greateful Dead or the Doobie Brothers -- no, really; you can draw a straight line between them.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were two of country's biggest stars, starting in the 1940s and going straight into the '70s. Flatt, who possessed the archetypal country voice and the ability to play guitar, teamed with Scruggs, a truly inventive banjo player - an innovator on the same level as Les Paul. He actually invented a three-fingered way of picking the banjo that gave his runs a sound no one else could duplicate.

Flatt & Scruggs were big in the '40s with the hillbilly cats, but when the '50s folk music revival came on, they got really big, scoring a string of Country Top 40 hits that ran for most of the '60s. They finally broke through to the general audience with the theme songs to "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction", as well as the film score to "Bonnie & Clyde".

This two-record set was issued about 1970, and contains 20 songs that were pretty big winners chartwise during the 1960s. It's a good showcase for Flatt & Scruggs' talent ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown"), humor ("99 Years Is Almost For Life"), influence ("Salty Dog Blues"), and country sentiment ("When Papa Played the Dobro"). Some of the music is just stunning - "Foggy", of course, is a seminal country song that's been covered by nearly everyone of note who could lay claim to proficiency with banjo or fiddle over the past 60 years. Other songs show that they were in touch with changing times - first a cover of Johnny Cash's 1958 smash "I Still Miss Someone", then a downhome version of Mel Tillis' "Detroit City".

There's nothing here from their '40s or '50s catalog, of course, but this set is what it is - a decade's retrospective from a duo who'd made their mark, and then some. If you see it, pick it up! Mine cost me a whole dollar in a ratty thrift store, and I consider it the find of the month, no doubt. The entire country-rock movement of the early '70s would not have happened but for these two.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Budos Band: The Budos Band

If you've known me any length of time, you know that I'm a freak for funk and soul music. To me, the best period in modern Black music was from 1967 to about 1982 - after Sly Stone and James Brown broke up the joint, but before hip-hop and rap became all-pervasive.

If you dig hardcore funk like I do, you will absolutely LOVE the Budos Band. This is a big unit, consisting of no less than 11 highly-skilled musicians from the bad streets of Brooklyn, funkin' it up with a full horn section just like the J.B.'s and Manu Dibango used to. I mention him specifically because the Budos' identify themselves as Afro-Funk, a musical subset made popular in the early 70s by artists such as Dibango, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela and Mandingo. Even War dabbled in this arena a bit (but with more of a West Coast feel underlying the funk).

Afro-Funk fuses a hardcore funk rhythm with harmonics and melody structures that borrow heavily from traditional African music. It is relentless, sometimes tribal, and always danceable.

The Budos Band are instrumentalists first and foremost. Which is to say, they ain't no words on this record. What there is is a rock-solid backbeat that never, ever lets up, coupled with a driving horn section that pummels you with straight-up funk, the kind that would make Bobby Byrd come up out of his seat and start to boogie uncontrollably. Budos works in a minor key on most of their songs as well, which gives you an almost uneasy feeling of foreboding, even as you're shaking your rump to the funk.

Formed in 2005, The Budos Band is one of a solid lineup of retro-soul acts that record for Brooklyn's Daptone Records, which grew out of the (in)famous Desco Records neo-soul combine of the Nineties. Suffice to say that when you hear The Budos Band, or any of their labelmates  – such as the Sugarman Trio or Sharon Jones – you will swear that it's 1974 again and you're listening to some new, undiscovered gem about to break wide open. But this isn't derivative aping of a bygone style — it's heartfelt performances made by people who are truly devoted to perpetuating a classic genre. This is the first of their three (so far) albums.

If I graded albums, I'd give this an A+, but I don't so just go order it, willya?

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells A Story

Boy, talk about a moment in time... this was it. Rod Stewart was at the absolute top of his game in 1971, and if you need proof, simply reference this masterpiece, "Every Picture Tells A Story." Still working with his mates in Faces (who rocked hard behind him on this album), but so filled with creativity he had time to record 4 solo albums of his own for Chicago's Mercury Records between 1969 and 1972. This is the 3rd in the series, which began with "The Rod Stewart Album" and "Gasoline Alley" and ended with "Never A Dull Moment".

Just look at all of the amazing music piled into this one Lp: "Reason To Believe," " Mandolin Wind", "Maggie May", the wonderful title track, and his awesome cover of the Temps' "I Know I'm Losing You" (of which "Maggie May" was actually the B-side of the 45 at first). If there is only one Rod album you own from this period, this one should be it. Timeless music well worth searching out on vinyl, although easily available on CD these days.

These days, no longer the sex symbol in the leopard pants, Rod is comfortable in his suit and tie, crooning Andy Bennett covers with what's left of his gin-soaked voice. But I'll take my Rod straight up, thank you; no chaser needed or desired.

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