Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
You’ve probably noticed a rush of lists lately, not only here at Thought On Tracks, but from every other music outlet. It’s that time of year, the output of new tracks slows and the critics begin to look back, not forward, as the calendar reaches its last page. We’ve seen the release of some brilliant new music this year, adeptly and diligently covered by our very talented authors, but as most of you may know, the eye of this piece looks not on the new, and this author’s sensibilities are dated and dusty. No release can better purse its lips and release one’s taste from the grime of age than the reissue.
Cleaned up, remastered, rediscovered, retooled, reordered, repackaged, revamped, the reissue is the music industry’s key weapon in the fight against time. Tastes change. Technology advances. Production slows and so does the heart. It is for all these reasons a reissue is necessary, to keep us from forgetting history in a society that is constantly looking forward, behaving as if it has none. Reissues, like Proust’s madeleine cake, re-invigorate a love that feels both lost and everlasting, tied to a period of life into which we are wholly thrust, through the channel of that love, and are allowed to somehow, indirectly, experience again. It is in this spirit that the best reissues are created: thoughtful, reverent, and comprehensive. It is in this same spirit that I present, in no particular order, for each is immortal in its own right, the 10 best reissues of 2011.
Brian Wilson – The Smile Sessions Box Set
What is there to say about an album that is at once completely incoherent and absolutely brilliant? Borne of utter insanity, Smile and its ancillary recordings are, not surprisingly, in large part utterly insane. Began by The Beach Boys in 1966 as an American answer to Sgt. Pepper’s, Smile held a reputation as one of the greatest and most fabled unfinished projects in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The Smile Sessions Box Set collects all the tape from the definitive Smile sessions, recorded with The Beach Boys in 1966-1967.
Inextricably tied to its mastermind, Brian Wilson’s, mythical antics, deteriorating emotional condition, abuse of LSD and general erraticism, Smile, Wilson’s “teenage anthem to God”, was widely believed to be dead, forever lost to the annals of rock lore, but with the help of original lyricist Van Dyke Parks and musician and composer Darian Sahanaja, Wilson was able to finally complete the album, rerecording it in its entirety and releasing it in 2004.
Many will not have heard of John Fahey, but if you like M. Ward, you like John Fahey. Ward admittedly built the bulk of his guitar style on Fahey’s brand of minimalist folk fingerpicking, often crediting with spawning its own genre, American Primitive Guitar. Borrowing from a number of American music traditions, Fahey yoked traditional musical strands of American roots together with world and the avant-garde to create something familiar, yet entirely unique.
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years (1958-1965) chronicles what one might call Fahey’s early nativist period, before he ventured deeper into the avant-garde. The collection is full of faithful interpretations of American music, from old Delta blues to Appalachian string ballads, western rumbles and stomps and beautiful, soul-stirring folk gospel. It is Fahey at his most natural, connecting with the music that, like his blood, sits just beneath the surface of his skin, waiting to leap from it like Whitman’s yawp. It is American musicology, and an American education, in a box.
Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band – Hoodoo Man Blues [Expanded Edition]
This selection should come as no surprise. Subject of the 6th In The Dust, Hoodoo Man Blues, by Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band, is long an author’s favorite. Widely regarded as one of the greatest blues records ever recorded, the 2011 reissue of Hoodoo Man Blues includes one unreleased song, “I Ain’t Stranded”, and loads of studio chatter and alternate takes, giving you a direct look inside the “blues bar band” world of Chicago’s Southside. For more, please see In The Dust #6: Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band – Hoodoo Man Blues.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On [40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition]
In March of 1970, Tammi Terrell, Gaye’s long-time singing partner, died six weeks before her 25th birthday of a malignant brain tumor. Gaye was devastated. He felt responsible for her illness and death. Refusing to perform or record, he withdrew from music altogether and tried out for the Detroit Lions, hoping to begin a career as a professional football player. He was unsuccessful, but this tangent lead to working with songwriters Al Cleveland and The Four Tops’ Obie Benson on a track called, “What’s Going On”, co-written for The Originals. Cleveland and Benson convinced Gaye to record the song himself, eschewing in a newly social, political and further spiritually conscious period in Gaye’s music.
Now, Marvin Gaye’s 11th record, and arguably his most famous, gets the super deluxe treatment. Rereleased with a whopping 28 bonus tracks, 16 of which have never seen the light of day, including a stripped down test mix of “What’s Going On”, original mono mixes of the album’s singles, and a ton of spare parts, alternate mixes and jams, this is a bevy of information on a truly significant American artist at the crux of his career.
Miles Davis – Live In Europe 1967:Best Of The Bootleg Vol.1
Bop. Live. In Europe.
As if that isn’t enough, this recording of Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet, the first in an intended series, features not only Miles Davis, the original cool cat, heir to Armstrong and Bechet’s thrones as king of the trumpet, it also boasts Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, all of whom are fully-realized legends with storied and celebrated careers. This was at the time, and is today, one of the greatest bands ever assembled, and here they are raw, off-the-cuff, unfettered and uninhibited, playing the way the best bands play, fearlessly, dangerously, and in the best of all conditions for jazz: live.
The Smiths – The Smiths Complete
First thing’s first, this is not technically “complete”, so this is not the end of the road for those who want to own everything. They did leave some things out, but this is almost everything: the four studio albums remastered, three compilations of the singles and one-offs and a live record.
For those who know The Smiths, this is a condensed representation of the long and tumultuous career of one of the best bands of all-time. For those who don’t know The Smiths, this is a dense, cavernous route to the essence of a legendarily depressive and hopelessly romantic Manchester alternative rock band, Johnny Marr, its innovative guitarist, and Morrissey, its lead singer, one of the most notorious and iconic frontmen ever, master of tragic beauty:
And if a double-decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die / And if a ten-ton truck / Kills the both of us / To die by your side / Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead
In the words of another poet, the French Dramatist, Jean Racine, “a tragedy need not have blood and death; it’s enough that it all be filled with that majestic sadness that is the pleasure of tragedy”.
The Rolling Stones – Some Girls [Deluxe Edition]
In a lot of ways an oddball in The Stones’ oeuvre, Some Girls attempts to bridge The Stones’ trademark roughness and modern pop trends. The result is weird, commercial and excellent. The group tackles disco, very faithful country and several strange, punkish brands of western, echoing, as does its cover art, the rising punk movement in the U.S. and their native Britain.
Much more polished than their previous work, and unabashedly more commercially ambitious, Some Girls shows The Stones at a point of portage: crossover into the rage and the popular, or turn around and go the way they came. What resulted is the last great record they ever made. This reissue includes an entire bonus disc of unreleased recordings made during the Some Girls sessions, further document of a band in flux.
Lee “Scratch” Perry – Return of Pipecock Jackxon
Credited by some as the originator of “dub”, Lee “Scratch” Perry is a reggae legend, instrumental in the growth of reggae and its acceptance across the world. His production techniques are a thing of wonder, widely influential and totally innovative, but his personal life is truly stranger than all. Known to defecate in champagne flutes as an illustration of man’s primitive and animalistic nature and secret them around his house for his wife to later find, Perry’s insanity runs very, very deep, and on Return of Pipecock Jackxon he wears it on his sleeve.
The final album to emerge from Perry’s infamous Black Ark studio in Jamaica before burning it down in a fit of rage to “cleanse himself of his sins”, Perry recorded Pipecock Jackxon during a period in which he frequented Amsterdam and took LSD in bulk. This string of various “escapes” from mounting social tension and personal stress produced what many see as Perry’s darkhorse masterwork, a rich opus expanding on the themes of his past work, while also hinting at a strange and promising future for reggae, dub, and even soul and R&B to come.
Ray Charles – Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles
106 songs and each better than the last, such is Ray Charles’s radical contribution to ABC Records during his 13-year tenure there. Recorded during what is known as Ray’s “crossover” years, the ABC singles are famous for racially integrating country and pop music, and for Ray’s legendary contract, one including several noteworthy stipulations like ownership of his masters, which virtually no one in the industry had ever received, much less a black artist. During this period Ray also realized his power as interpreter rather than author, ceasing to write new material and growing into the iconoclastic and idiosyncratic master of the popular standards for which he was famous in his later years. For fanatics, the set includes both the A and B sides of all 53 singles, 30 previously unreleased songs, and 21 receiving, for the first time, the digital treatment.
Louis Armstrong – Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz
OK. Many of you are probably saying that this is cheating. Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz will not be released in the U.S. for another three and a half weeks, but it’s Louis Armstrong. The rules do not apply.
Armstrong’s influence on music and the world is incalculable. Pioneer of “hot jazz”, scat singing and the trumpet as a solo instrument, Armstrong was truly a visionary, one-of-a-kind, and one the first black performers to completely “cross over”. As a musician he was second-to-none, and as a personality, he was irresistible. His importance, his grandeur, cannot, by any stretch, be overestimated and, honestly, it makes this author’s heart ache to even think about it.
This collection streamlines the former 10-CD Armstrong retrospective into a 4-CD set. Most will probably never need the 10 CDs containing virtually everything he’s ever done, but all should have it. At the very least, all should have this, for it is the gospel, the Bible of music, a love letter to and a symbol of all things indispensable.
As is the nature of a limited list, some things get left out. Honorable mention for the best reissues of 2011 goes to:
Nirvana – Nevermind [Deluxe Edition]
Jesus & Mary Chain – Psychocandy [Expanded Edition]
And, last but not least:
Iggy Pop & James Williamson – Kill City (Restored, Remixed, Remastered)
All are immortal albums and all require space in everyone’s collection.
Written by Ben Brundage
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
Pops plays “The Father of The Blues.” Could it get much better? The answer, immediately apparent in the first three seconds of the album’s opener, “St. Louis Blues”, is found in seven notes from Armstrong’s horn: no, no, absolutely not.
W.C. Handy is a name that has been tossed around a few times in the history of In The Dust. It happens to be a very important one, particularly when concerning the blues. Popularly referred to as “The Father of The Blues,” Handy is most well known not for inventing the blues, but inventing its modern form and building the archetypal framework for cross-genre interpretations of the blues and visa versa. He introduced blues scaling, color and form into jazz music, a marriage that has stood the test of time and grown to become nearly one. Because of this, it is no surprise that Armstrong would select Handy as his subject of interpretation. However, when concerning Armstrong’s own personal history and musical development, it is a tad curious.
Armstrong grew up in a rough-and-tumble area of New Orleans known as “Back of the Town”. He attended a nearby boys’ school but did not last long. He dropped out at age eleven and joined a boys’ vocal quartet, but the unstructured, latchkey lifestyle led to trouble. Because of periodic delinquency, and firing a gun in a crowded square, Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It is here he learned how to play coronet, joining a military-style brass band with an emphasis on discipline and musicianship. Despite just learning the instrument, Armstrong quickly became bandleader, garnering considerable attention for his command of the instrument at such a young age. Armstrong graduated to playing in city brass bands and fell under the tutelage of the great Joe Oliver, better known as “King”, of King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band.
Armstrong remembers Oliver thusly:
It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.
Armstrong credits Oliver as a father figure, and the one who taught him nearly everything he knows, joining Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, the hottest and most popular New Orleans’ jazz band of the time, and playing with him off and on for the rest of Oliver’s career.
It is interesting to note that only three years later, in 1925, after Armstrong had moved to New York, joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and switched from the coronet to the trumpet, he played on Bessie Smith’s rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a recording that become of the most popular of the 1920’s and garnered Handy, and Smith, widespread fame and considerable pay.
Armstrong continued to revisit Handy’s work for the remainder of his career, and in full on this collection. Perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to the author, but, while Oliver’s influence is the one that dominates Armstrong’s sound, it is the work of Handy that dominates his oeuvre. This collection asserts that, maybe, it is because no one but Armstrong can play Handy so beautifully.
“St. Louis Blues,” the song that inspired the foxtrot, also known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet”, opens the record, beginning with a classically beautiful Armstrong fanfare that, despite the year of this album’s recording, 1954, seems right at home snaking over the undulating dance floor of Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or Cotton Club. The tempo and color when compared to Handy’s 1912 recording is indicative of Armstrong’s recognition of the need to modernize, while retaining the song’s essence and an eye, always, on New Orleans, an impulse that followed him, more or less at times, throughout his career. In his horn and the thick, sultry vocals of Velma Middleton you smell the Pastis and taste the Sazerac as the mixture cascades down upon impossibly slowly, like molasses, until you are encompassed and saturated with joy.
“Yellow Dog Blues,” follows, a lazy-river blues that relieves the tension of the terrifically jubilant, 8:50, “St. Louis Blues,” and sets a deep, upright bass-heavy groove that shines a light on Armstrong’s beautifully quirky and remarkably infectious voice. Drunken horns laugh in the background, cracking blue jokes and downing bourbon with droll, harping clarinets as Armstrong issues references to classic blues lore of the “easy rider,” the “bole weevil”, the “cotton stalk” and even those immortal words W.C. Handy first heard at the Tutwiler Station, waiting for his train, on the infamous day he first heard the blues and the namesake of this song: “goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog”.
“Beale Street Blues,” a true slow-blues standout, opens with soft-lipped clarinets over a fat backbeat, Armstrong singing what is one of the author’s favorite lines in all of music, and, more importantly, the spirit of New Orleans: “You’ll see pretty browns / In beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades / and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men / and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes / Till somebody gets killed.” Armstrong unrolls his trademark vibrato like a red carpet unfurling, flapping and bouncing past drunks, bums, slinking adulterers, and down a gas-lit promenade. “If Beale Street could talk,” he growls, “if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner / Who sings the Beale Street Blues”. An image echoed in blues from Blind Willie McTell and a host of others to follows in Handy’s footsteps, “Beale Street Blues” is the familiar smell and the feel against your cheek of the cool side of the pillow on your first night back home after a long time away. Perhaps you have never been to Beale Street, or New Orleans, but this Beale Street, and the warm, bright and perpetually breathtaking solos of Armstrong, are there to greet you and assure you that you never really left.
Armstrong selects “Atlanta Blues (Make Me A Pallet On The Floor)” to close out the collection. The tempo, walking bass line and shuffling hi-hat of “Atlanta Blues” makes a sly, joker’s nod-and-wink to the emerging bebop movement before returning to the rapturous, Charleston-ing blues bounce of Armstrong’s New Orleans, “hot” jazz, Dixie sound. Featuring some of his most boisterous and emphatic solos, it is clear that this song, in classic New Orleans style, is Armstrong’s give-it-your-all send-off. “Just make me a pallet on the floor,” Armstrong repeatedly suggests, as playing like that would leave anyone bushed, and a pallet will suit his humble needs just fine.
And in grand style, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars draw their tribute to W.C. Handy to a close, Armstrong repeating, “So please, just make me a pallet on the floor,” for once the listener has concluded the last track in this collection, is it not the end of their time together. The curious timbre and lovable theatricality of Armstrong’s voice, the amazement at his unparalleled virtuosity and his friendly, comforting persona will stay with you, as the most welcomed and celebrated houseguest, for some time.
This is a record not to be missed, with a place in every jazz or blues lover’s collection. Handy first appropriated the blues for jazz in 1912. Louis Armstrong, in 1954, re-appropriates Handy for everyone, and in gratitude, respect and pure love, we devote to them, and their brilliant careers, as much space as they should like.