Miles Davis
The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
Columbia Legacy

Over a quarter century after it shocked the music world, Miles Davis's watershed album, Bitches Brew, still generates controversy. Considered the most important jazz work of the past 30 years by some and penultimate commercial bastardization by others, Bitches Brew changed music the moment it hit the stands in 1970, and jazz was never the same again. Miles Davis had left another permanent thumbprint on music and this time scored his first gold record.

Culled from three days of August 1969 sessions, the original Bitches Brew release consisted of six songs spread over two albums (two songs clock in at over 20 minutes). The music was almost totally improvised, as Davis brought in not compositions but ideas and let a cast of musicians that included John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Larry Young, Dave Holland, Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette -- some of the most important players of the past 30 years -- develop those ideas into a blistering musical statement.

Bitches Brew didn't blur but rather obliterated the lines between jazz and rock. While various forms of fusion had been developing for years, it always sounded like a rock player doing jazz or vice versa. But Bitches Brew was the perfect blend of jazz, rock, funk, African rhythms, distorted guitar, electronic keyboards, extended jazz improvisations and significant postproduction (including major editing, tape loops, a reverb chamber and echo effects) and Davis's emotive trumpet. Nothing else sounded remotely like it.

Excellently packaged with good liner notes (though the choice of Quincy Troupe as a writer is dubious given the circumstances surrounding his contributions to Miles Davis's autobiography) and meticulous session information, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions is a four-CD set that combines the original Bitches Brew album with five sessions Davis conducted in late 1969 and early 1970. Most of the music from the post-Bitches Brew sessions was not released for years, with nine tracks making their first appearance on this collection. Davis chose not to issue much of the music because by March 1970, just a month after Bitches Brew's release, he had shifted to a smaller, more guitar-dominated sound with his Jack Johnson sessions. The five post-Bitches Brew sessions are particularly notable as the vast majority of songs don't point in the Jack Johnson direction but have a more surreal quality to them, enhanced by Davis's use of the sitar and Joe Zawinul's style of electric piano playing. However, John McLaughlin's raucous guitar on "Double Image" certainly hints at what would happen on Jack Johnson.

The sound quality on this collection is different from on the analog LPs. The original analog delay is gone, with digital echo taking its place. Instruments have more separation, and there is less compression. It sounds more like what Davis was doing in the studio, but who knows if this version recreates his intent. He very well may have preferred the more blurred wall of sound.

Miles Davis is the most important post-World War II musician. The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, which documents a master's evolution of a style of music that changed the way jazz and rock would be played forever, is one of the many testaments to that fact.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Built to Spill
Keep It Like a Secret
Warner Bros.

With a mosquito-y voice and reverence for the guitar gods of rock and roll, Built to Spill leader Doug Martsch is an unlikely underground rock icon. The world-askew wordplay of his lyrics and the intriguing, shape-shifting of the songs fit snugly in the indie rock world, but Martsch and his supporting cast of characters (including ex-Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf, perhaps the finest alternative rock drummer since Dave Grohl manned the skins for Nirvana) ignore indie rock's "no guitar heroes" rule and unselfconsciously celebrate the power of rock and roll. Uniting classic rock's earnestness and indie rock's musical nonconformity on Keep It Like a Secret, the group's fourth record, BTS channels the spirit and daring which fuel the best work of both genres.

Martsch refuses to give up on the idea that loose song structures, good intentions and angular pop/rock songs with personal lyrics can connect with and have an effect on a small subculture. Like those of Pavement and Guided By Voices, BTS's songs are grounded in the rock tradition while exploring the rough edges and gleaning new songs from the source material of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. And over and over Martsch's uncanny ability to wrest new sounds from his Stratocaster unites Keep It Like a Secret.

Built to Spill's achieved goal is, in essence, to blur the lines which were never meant to be drawn around rock. The band unites the power of rock and the ingeniousness of the obscure, using quotations from classic rock ("You were right when you said, 'All we are is dust in the wind' / You were right when you said, 'We're all just bricks in the wall' ") and blistering rock in waltz-time, making a statement about the lasting impact that great, innovative rock can have, including records such as Keep It Like a Secret.

-- David Simutis

Busta Rhymes
Extinction Level Event

As the 21st century creeps up on you and you pace yourself for the hundreds and thousands of renditions of Prince's "1999" that you'll be hearing just about everywhere you go, it seems that rappers are taking on another role in their job description: armchair prophets. Practically every new rap release (Method Man's Tical 2000: Judgement Day, for example) also doubles as a forecast on future global annihilation. It's the end of the world as we know it, and for most of today's rappers, they feel fine.

No rapper is looking forward to a possible apocalypse more than Busta Rhymes. Some of y'all who have seen his in-your-face, headache-inducing videos might have perceived him as a crazy-ass party rapper, the Tasmanian Devil with a mike and rope-sized dreadlocks. But as anyone who has listened to his last two albums will tell you, Busta has a catastrophic way of thinking. He's the kind of hip-hop cat who probably watches Irwin Allen films for inspiration. (His last two albums were called The Coming and When Disaster Strikes, for chrissakes!)

On his latest, Extinction Level Event, Busta reaches his cataclysmic peak. Busta's calamitous, full-assault rhymes (most of them done too damn swift for me to transcribe and write up here) play well with the kitschy, madhouse samples that can be heard on such tracks as the title number, "Where We Are About To Take It," and "Everybody Rise." But there are still some crowd pleasers, laced with those catchy choruses that have become a staple of Busta's work. (I don't think the record label would release the damn thing if there weren't.) A staccato-backbeat pace sets "Tear da Roof Off," while electro beats reign throughout the possible club hit "Do the Bus a Bus."

The guest spots are even more tantalizing. "What's It Gonna Be?!" has him getting his funk on with none other than Janet Jackson. "This Means War!!" has him performing with Ozzy Osbourne and the Lordz of Brooklyn on a Puff Daddy-style rendition of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." (Beavis & Butthead would be pleased.) He even bounces off walls with the equally verbally acrobatic Mystikal on "Iz They Wildin' wit Us & Gettin' Rowdy wit Us?"

Unadulterated as it is sublimely unflinching, Extinction Level Event casts Busta Rhymes as the ultimate gatecrasher: one who can get a party started off right while scaring you with prophecies of the new millennium. Remember, you've been warned.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Bottle Rockets

With all the hubbub about musical Americana these days, great American rock and roll bands are still in short supply indeed. That's why most anything from the Bottle Rockets is music to be cherished. Mixing Lynyrd Skynyrd crunch with a Midwestern populist consciousness, this foursome has managed to put its li'l hometown of Festus, Missouri, on the musical map, thanks to three lyrically smart and musically tough albums and nonstop road work, where the potency of its recorded sound is kicked up a good notch or two and enhanced by the on-stage charm of lead Rocket Brian Henneman.

Leftovers is almost just what it says it is: an eight-song collection of odds, sods and outtakes, some of which are obviously the sort of tunes that were tracked for the band's own enjoyment as much as anything else. But the lead-off tune, "River Get Down," is worth the price of this CD alone. The band's contribution to the PBS special River of Song, it's a stately and potent slice of Mississippi riverside life from flooded Festus that features not only an inescapably catchy chorus but also cheeky verses that spotlight Henneman's uniquely dry wit such as "Looks like the Gulf of Mexico down by the Texaco."

Nearly as notable is "Dinner Train to Dutchtown," a crunchy 12-bar blues about a train ride catered by a fine Cajun chef (who else would write about such subjects? I dunno). Sure, some of the other songs here, such as the cheap motel debauchery of "If Walls Could Talk" and the raunch rock of "Chattanooga," are dispatches from the road that these guys came up with to provide themselves with some laughs as the van rolled down the road to the next gig. But even such leftovers as "Skip's Song" (an elegy to a musically correct fan) and "Financing His Romance" (where the protagonist yearns for the bar owner's lady and knows as he spends his cash on drinks that it's only enabling the barkeep's relationship) demonstrate this act's knack for expressing the pathos of the little folks one meets along the rock and roll circuit. And to ice the lyrical cake, the Bottle Rockets rock with an incendiary passion and precision that the alt-rock kids only dream they could manage.

Sure, this album is merely a stopgap measure as band members prepare their next real record. But if everyone's leftovers were as tasty as this, contemporary rock might not be as lacking in nutritional content as it is.

-- Rob Patterson

Steve Vai
Flex-able Leftovers

During and right after his tenure with Frank Zappa in the early '80s, Steve Vai cut Flex-able, an album filled with adventurous production, guitar gymnastics and that Zappa madman stuff. Vai's follow-up to Flex-Able was called Flex-able Leftovers, a ten-inch EP of eight songs that didn't make it to Flex-able. Released in 1984, Leftovers lived up to its title, sounding like an extremely twisted collection of outtakes. When Flex-Able was issued on CD in 1988, Vai added four of the tamer songs from Leftovers and discontinued the EP. Now, Vai has issued the complete Flex-able Leftovers with four previously unreleased tracks as a full-length CD.

Leftovers now opens with the previously unreleased "#?@! Yourself," a song with five minutes of profanity and hot guitar solo at the end. Funny? Well, a couple stabs at the establishment and grunge rock are. Sophomoric? More so than Beavis and Butthead, less so than South Park. Next is "So Happy," a delightful song where vocalist Laurel Fishman's utterances about happiness are more annoying than a Laverne and Shirley rerun. Vai makes matters worse when he doubles her pitches on guitar. In its own way, it's actually quite fun.

Though Leftovers has the expected stunt guitar work, a couple of tracks are disturbing. "Details at 10" is a mediocre song, notable only for the "newscast" in the middle where a reporter announces the brutal beating, rape and murder of two preteens and the necrophilia that subsequently ensued. Uplifting. As for "Little Pieces of Seaweed," Vai states in the liner notes that it was an experiment of a poetry and orchestration, which I guess explains the following lyrics: "Eh, your body looked like a road map, and my best friend got so confused, he thought you were doubting Thomas and put his fingers in your holes that I left there after I beat you up with an ax." Art? Yeah, bad art.

Flex-able Leftovers contains great musicianship, and back in college I thought the songs were cool because they were so radical and Vai is such a guitar wizard. Today the radical stuff sounds like incompetent satire -- shock for shock's sake. There's nothing ennobling or challenging about that, either, even if Vai's guitar playing is technically demanding. That said, Leftovers has some hot instrumentals and really cool production. Vai fans will eat this up, but eventually this novelty gets put on the shelf after only a couple of listens.

-- Paul J. MacArthur


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