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-- Frank-John Hadley

Fred McDowell
The First Recordings
Rounder

This is where it all began: in the living room of Fred McDowell's farm house in Como, Mississippi. On four warm, late-September nights in 1959 in front of family, friends and the microphones of Alan Lomax, McDowell offered the world a glimpse of his magic. It was word of mouth that had brought Lomax to McDowell. The roots-music historian had been recording the Young Brothers' Fife and Drum Band as part of one of his jaunts through the South when he was introduced to McDowell by fife player Ed Young, Fred's neighbor.

Soon thereafter, Lomax was struck by the most compelling and vital blues he had ever encountered. Pulling off a little magic of his own, he managed to capture McDowell's energy and complex, highly personal style. The First Recordings is part of Rounder Records' continuing attempt to release every bit of the music chronicled by Lomax. It marks the first time an entire collection of McDowell's recordings for Lomax has been compiled on a single disc. Eight of the 14 tracks have never been issued before, and a couple of them McDowell would never record again. Some of his best-known songs make appearances: "61 Highway," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Shake 'Em On Down" and Blind Willie Johnson's "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" are all brought forth with simple, yet powerful beauty. A few feature Fanny Davis on comb and tissue paper, an instrument that brings a tremendous amount of unearthliness to the proceedings. Much more than a historical footnote, The First Recordings is nothing short of fascinating in its melancholy and joy. (*****)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Gilby Clarke
The Hangover
Paradigm

A sticker on The Hangover reads: "A rock 'n' roll record from former Guns N' Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke." But anyone expecting to hear a striking resemblance to, say, Use Your Illusion or even Slash's Snakepit (of which Clarke was also a member) would be best advised to steer themselves away from Clarke's second solo outing.

At least Clarke, who took over rhythm guitar chores from Izzy Stradlin for one Guns N' Roses release (The Spaghetti Incident?) and tour, has made constructive use of his time away from the group. On The Hangover, he flashes numerous '70s influences like so many bumper stickers on his guitar case, whether it's by naming them in his lyrics (the Rolling Stones, the Clash, the New York Dolls), covering their tunes (the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," Bowie's "Hang On to Yourself") or by talking up their debauched lifestyles. And therein lies the problem: In so lovingly embracing the musical past, Clarke loses his own identity.

Maybe Clarke should take a hint from his Gunner predecessor, Stradlin, whose own solo outing, Izzy Stradlin & the JuJu Hounds, effectively channeled the whiskey-basted spirit of Keith Richards circa 1972, but did so in a way that was far less derivative. (** 1/2)

-- Bob Ruggiero

Various Artists
ALatino! ALatino!
Putumayo World Music

Hoping to broaden your south-of-the-border musical knowledge beyond Brazilian and conjunto? Not sure you want to buy an entire CD of salsa music by a band you're not familiar with? Then you might want to pick up a copy of ALatino! ALatino!, a lively collection of cha-chas, salsa, rumbas, Latin jazz and son, with a touch of flamenco and cumbia thrown in for good measure.

The CD showcases a variety of performers and instruments -- male and female vocalists, flutes and horns, guitars -- and above all, the Afro-Latin drums, percussion and rhythms that make the genre so infectious. The quality of the performances and recordings is generally high, though production on a few tunes veers toward the synthetic. Especially memorable are Ricardo Lemvo's soukous-flavored salsa track "Yiri Yiri Bon," Poncho Sanchez's version of the familiar "Besame Mama" and Sierra Maestra's take on "No Me Llores."

Overall, ALatino! ALatino! is a nice party companion, if not as impressive as the recent Latin compilations Cachao: Master Sessions, Vols. I and II and Cumbia Cumbia, Vols. I and II. Given that, you may want to skip ALatino! ALatino! and go straight for the gusto with any CD from the latter two series. (***)

-- Julie Carter

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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