Mississippi Fred McDowell
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
Through the 1960s, Chris Strachwitz roamed the South, looking for old farmers with guitars and accordions. The quality of his resulting field recordings, and of subsequent studio sessions, led to his reputation as one of the most accomplished producers of the genre. More important, Strachwitz's genuine respect for musicians became an obsession with honesty and accountability. Ask Juke Boy Bonner's heir about royalties and rip-offs; the first thing she'll tell you is that those checks from Arhoolie show up like clockwork. "Mississippi" Fred McDowell got down from his tractor in 1964 and invited a stranger from Germany to spend the night. Late into the night and again the next day, McDowell played and sang and Strachwitz recorded. McDowell's wife Annie Mae and her sisters from the Hunter's Chapel choir joined in when the theme shifted from blues to gospel. Even with digital remastering, it is hard to accept that Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is a single-mike field recording. This is 77 minutes of some of the clearest, most heart-wrenching acoustic slide guitar work ever released. Smaller vinyl issues from this session earned McDowell a reputation as a musician's musician. He became a longtime friend, teacher and touring companion to Bonnie Raitt; substantial royalties from the Rolling Stone's cover of "You Gotta Move" greatly eased his final days. If there is a flaw to Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, it's that some may find the intensity of this lengthy recording overwhelming. Guitar players become silent and somewhat slack-jawed when this disc is on; the 11 gospel cuts -- especially an innovative arrangement of "Amazing Grace" -- are a must-have for church choir directors. For the rest of us, this may not be a recording to play every day, but there will come a time when being alone with, and overwhelmed by, "Mississippi" Fred and Annie Mae McDowell will cure whatever ails you.
-- Jim Sherman
Right Around the Corner
The Persuasions were an anachronism when they recorded their first album for Frank Zappa in 1970. That was seven or eight years after the last commercial flowering of doo-wop, the music which the Persuasions' a cappella most closely approximates, and about the time the traditional qualities their harmonies projected -- playfulness, pride of craft and unabashed, non-ironic sentimentality -- were beginning their rapid and now almost-complete (but not quite) disappearance from the popular culture. Twenty-five years later, time has caught up with the Persuasions. Boyz II Men and other youngsters with fashionable haircuts have re-popularized the artful vocalizing in which the Persuasions specialize, and doo-wop, which was always something of a nostalgic enterprise, is stronger than ever in its near-constant state of oldies-circuit revival. The Persuasions themselves have gone gray and saggy, but as true classicists, their music remains unchanged. At their best, the Persuasions take other people's songs and, with a harmonizing lineage that flows as much from the choir and barbershop quartet as from the street corner, transform them into something transcendent. There's nothing on Right Around the Corner that approaches the majesty of "Lookin' For an Echo" from 1977's Chirpin', their best album, or their bitterly impassioned version of Joe South's "Don't It Make You Wanna Go Home" from 1975's We Came to Play, and a couple of the tunes are downright sappy, especially the self-penned offerings. But almost anything the Persuasions touch can be inspiring, if you're in a receptive mood, and the sheer variety of songs they tackle is always a revelation in itself. On Right Around the Corner, they pay homage to Zappa with his exquisitely cheesy "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up" (probably the way it was originally intended to be done), refashion a couple of prime Five Royales' tunes, reach deep down on Percy Mayfield's "My Jug and I" and Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" and soar on Weill-Brecht's "Oh Heavenly Salvation." The CD closes with a gorgeously understated rendering of the Troggs' "Love is All Around," transforming it from an expression of teenage longing into a profession of middle-aged fealty and, finally, a testament to the Persuasions' ability to continue doing what they do best, oblivious to fad, fancy or geometrically landscaped haircuts.
-- Jim Simmon
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Five Card Stud
Despite the name, Buckwheat Zydeco has always been the zydeco band least constrained by the genre, primarily as a result of leader Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural Jr.'s broad musical taste and training. Their latest album, Five Card Stud, proves that point in spades -- only half of the ten cuts are pure-bred zydeco, with gospel, blues and roadhouse boogie filling out the 35-minute CD. As usual, Buckwheat covers some songs from unexpected sources: a lively Willie Nelson sings and plays guitar on "Man with the Blues," the 1959 song that was Nelson's first single, and Buckwheat himself takes a crack at Van Morrison's previously unrecorded "Bayou Girl." Closer to stylistic home, gospel diva Mavis Staples shares vocals with Buckwheat on the traditional, spiritual "This Train."
Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin produced the album with a clean, bright mix, falling prey to creeping Alligatorization -- the practice of imposing on almost every blues, soul or roots band a mainstreamed variant of the big Chicago/Stax sound. While this trend has brought the blues and other regional genres to much wider audiences and revived many long-dormant but worthy careers (and got Buckwheat nominated for a Grammy), it has smoothed away some of the idiosyncrasies that made the artists notable in the first place and sometimes obscured their talents as bandleaders and arrangers. Here, it's almost as if the myriad styles that inform Buckwheat Zydeco's sound were, in the name of accessibility (which is the price one pays for being on a major label), blended and tamed. Nonetheless, Five Card Stud is sharp and lively -- Buckwheat's ebullient spirit and sense of melody shine through and invest each song with a life of its own. The original composition "Baby Doll" is a full-tilt zydeco rave, and the closing instrumental, "Secret of Love," showcases the band's talent for the slow dance. Another standout is the cover of the Bruce Channel chestnut "Hey Baby" -- one of those songs that's so much of the fabric of Louisiana music that it's a surprise to remember that somebody actually had to write it.
-- Peter Kelly