Biker’s Dozen: January 2013

Every month, this site will be stricken with insomnia and provide content in the form of letting its iTunes shuffle go berserk and jotting down a few notes on the resulting 6 songs.  It will do this in hopes of disguising the fact that it no longer finds keeping up with the new-music hype cycle either rewarding or remunerative, and that it is, at any rate, a very old website that throws its back out when it tries to dance.  What will you get out of it?  Something to keep you occupied, a good song now and again, and maybe a few laughs.  Worth it on both ends, I hope you’ll agree.

Dizzy Gillespie & His Orchestra, “Anthropology” (from The Original RCA/Victor Recordings, 1945).  One of the classics from Dizzy’s big band days, this one has become a standard, and one of the most recognizable compositions he made during his rich collaboration with Charlie Parker.  Unmistakably of that period when swing was giving way to bebop and solo-laden dance music was turning into looser rhythmic changes, it seems particularly of its time, though not necessarily dated.  Bird isn’t around for this version, which instead relies for its signature sound on Milt Jackson’s flawless vibraphones; the first half of the song, where Diz delivers some hopping, tripping trumpet over a steady plunking chord progression by pianist Mtume Forman and Jackson’s soaring vibes, attains the weird sonic quality of someone rhythmically making change.  Of course, Diz knew better than to let anyone steal the rug out from under him, so in its second half, rather than let Jackson take over the whole song, he delivers a series of stunning peaks on a trumpet solo that seals up the whole song.  Even without any of the historical background, you can tell this is a player at the height of his powers here.

Hank Williams, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (from Honky Tonkin’, 1949).  Recorded at the time when he was tearing up the country charts and becoming the most enduring of the genre’s stars, this is one of Hank’s good-time numbers, and has become as widely recorded a standard in its own was as did “Anthropology”.  Delivered in a much smoother voice than a lot of his more famous songs, which he roughened up with hard living or sweetened with high-lonesome whoops, “Bucket” — with its clear descent from old blues numbers — finds him on the prowl, frustratingly sober and “looking for a woman who ain’t got no man”.  Although it fits more in his honky-tonk repertoire than with the gospel or lonely-hearts material, the overall musical tone of the song delivers a downcast mood; the lowering, bent chords of the opening guitar riff, which usually signals lighter content, is slowed up and the minor-key configuration of the song gives it a distinctly bluesy quality (as does the unusually loose guitar solo midway through).  Regardless, Hank sounds like he’s having a good time for once, delivering sly lyrics like “what’s the use of me workin’ so hard when I got a woman in the bossman’s yard?”.

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” (from Stephen Malkmus, 2001).  You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Pavement fan than me, and I was genuinely crushed when the band finally fell apart.  Malkmus’ solo album was hotly anticipated in many quarters, but for me, I depart with the common consensus that the Pave hasn’t aged well.  To me, it’s Malkmus’ solo work that seems to have grayed poorly; his experiments with ’70s pop-rock fidelity strike me as uninspired attempts at a faded authenticity.  This was the first big single from a solo career many thought would end up proving that Malkmus was the supreme genius of the band all along, and there’s some evidence to support that:  the song is nearly perfect as a pop-rock creation, with a stellar hook, a clever composition (the choogling break gives it just the right touch of variety, at just the right time), and some swell aching romantic tragedy in the lyrics, with a typically Malkmus postmodern twist.  It’s definitely a great song.  But there’s so much missing:  the instrumentation is studio-perfect, with none of the raw edge that sharpened Pavement’s best material; Malkmus’ voice on its own sounds weak without his mates adding clamorous harmonies, and no compression or distortion to cover the blandness; and after all this while, the lyrics seem to have taken on a parodic meanness instead of the clever twists of his prior work.  “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” was a great beginning to a solo career, but it contained the seeds of what made that career end up lacking.

Louis Prima, “Banana Split for My Baby” (from The Wildest!, 1956).  Recorded during the same session that produced Prima’s best-remembered material from his king-of-Vegas phase, this is a number that wasn’t restored to The Wildest! until its re-release in 2002.  At the time, Prima had distilled his swing and jump blues material into a fine mash and distilled it along with then-popular trends in jazz-pop and dance songs, and the result was tons of songs like this, abetted by Sam Butera and his backing band, the Witnesses, who were starting to get hip to the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing.  Prima burbles out the lyrics, a goofy mishmash of pure corn and raunchy double-entendres centered around an attempt to get his girlfriend fat, with all the lack of seriousness they deserve, while Butera and the Witnesses chug politely along in the background, giving all the drunken businessmen and their wives at the Sahara something to shake it to in between trips to the tables.  Butera and Prima both stay out of the way musically, giving the solo to Willie McCumber’s tinkling piano.  This isn’t anything special, just a very representative slice of Prima’s Vegas show act of the time and therefore plenty of fun at parties.

Doc Watson, “Talk About Suffering” (from Doc Watson, 1964).  Doc Watson was the man to talk about suffering:  his pure-bred country/folk credentials were unimpeachable, coming from a poor family in Deep Gap, North Carolina and overcoming an eye infection that rendered him blind from childhood to become a towering figure in his idiom.  He trained himself to become a fantastic guitar player with a distinctively intricate flat-picking style.  His debut album contained original material mixed with some well-known standards; this age-old traditional gospel number may have been its most unusual track.  The transformational quality of so many of Watson’s greatest songs come from his ability to invigorate the folk form with his amazing guitar playing, but here, he lets his voice do all the work:  unaccompanied by any instrumentation, he simply lets the message of the song, imploring followers to let go of their miseries and come to Jesus, do all the work.  (If some of the phrasing sounds familiar, it’s because, in the great drifting tradition of folk music, some of the lyrics turn up in the version of “Down to the River to Pray” from the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?.)  His voice is often only serviceable, but the long stretches of mournful tone that end each verse are downright chilling.

Niney the Observer, “Scattered Dub” (from Space Flight Dub, 1972).  I’m always leery of using the context-resistant word “underrated”, but Winston Holness, a.k.a. Niney the Observer, does tend to get overlooked when the great producers and composers of dub are mentioned.  (Like Gary Condit’s wife, he had no thumbs, which probably accounts for the prejudice against him.)  His solo albums tended to be grand, fun affairs; here, he assembled a top-notch band (including Style Scott, Chinna Smith and Flabba Holt) to dub up a bunch of songs and give them a vaguely space-travel-themed concept.  On this, the third track on the album, Niney begins with some patois and then makes a bunch of crazy engine noises, which he then soaks in echo and speeds up until they become surreal washes of sound that lead into a terrific dub number supported by a lively, bouncing horn riff.  Placing gated echoes on Scott’s drums and bringing Flabba Holt’s bass way up in the mix fixes it into Space Flight Dub‘s primary sound, and a persistent echo from Deadly Headley’s sax leads it into a particularly memorable racket in the middle passage.  This is a great one to blast out of bass-capable speakers on a late night drive.

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