One of the good things about the howling, whirling, all-ingesting mouth of the pop-culture machine is that as it strips the surroundings bare of anything that might prove useful--septuplets, people who are afraid to love, cigar-smoking dogs--it does occasionally stir up some pretty neat stuff from olden times. Here are some reasons to be glad somebody went back for another look.
American Music, The Blasters (Rolling Rock Records). This is the roots-rock operator's manual, written by one of the genre's founding fathers. These songs appear on later, more polished albums, but the Blasters never sounded as raw or as hungry--or as earnest--again. Essential.
Snockgrass, Michael Hurley (Rounder Records). This 1980 folk album is a vivid tour through situations and scenarios drawn from everyday life that John Steinbeck might recognize and applaud. From the brutal realism of "You're Gonna Look Just Like a Monkey" to the story of judgment "I'm Getting Ready to Go"--which contains the all-too-likely couplet "I got my Bible and a mouth full of cheese/I fell right down on my sinful knees"--Hurley spins tales full of wit and insight, kind of what you might expect from Tom Waits in a flannel Woolrich shirt-jac.
The Alan Lomax Collection, various artists (Rounder Records). The first half-dozen or so in what ultimately will be the 100-volume-plus library of Alan Lomax's musicological research is a valuable reminder of the contributions of the father-son team of John and Alan Lomax. Alan well may have been the first world music fan; his father discovered Leadbelly. In these revisionist times, the Lomaxes have taken more than their share of knocks for behavior that was perfectly normal for their times but that now comes off as a bit bogus. Just the first few discs show how remarkable their contribution really was.
Du Jazz Dans le Ravin, Comic Strip, and Couleur Cafe, Serge Gainsbourg (Mercury Records). When you listen to these '60s-vintage albums, it seems astounding that most people haven't heard of Gainsbourg. If anybody does know him, it's as the author of "Bonnie and Clyde," a discomfiting tale of outlaw America accompanied not only by a steady series of hoots, whoops, and moans, but also by Brigitte Bardot as Bonnie. He seemed to know that pop was inherently disposable, but that didn't keep him from turning out incredibly nuanced, perfect-pop albums that make Todd Rundgren look like a piker.
Yesterday's Wine, Willie Nelson (Justice Records). The stoned-out mysticism doesn't go over quite as smoothly as remembered, but there are still a lot of great songs on this concept album, including the classic title song and the favorite road tale "Me and Paul." Nelson has an impressive ability to make each song seem the next's emotional cousin, but not obviously, allowing the listener's imagination quite a bit of running room. The song cycle that drives this album moves in a rather relaxed fashion, but it gets its point across, and it's a shame that Red-Headed Stranger tends to steal some of the credit Yesterday's Wine had already earned.
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The Global Masters, Johnny Mathis (Columbia/Legacy Records). Johnny Mathis' voice is so gorgeous, so lush, that it would almost have to be a gift from the devil; what makes him so remarkable is that his delivery is free of corruption and decadence. This music is taken from the one time Mathis left longtime home Columbia for Mercury, 1963 to '66. His singing so elegantly invests tone and emotion in a song that it's a delight just to listen. Pop perfection.
The Magic Sam Legacy, Magic Sam (Delmark Records). Magic Sam's West Side Soul is still a necessary part of any informed rock library, his Black Magic a little bit less so but still excellent. This music--previously unreleased--is an excellent companion for either, having been culled from the same sessions. Sam is all country funk and economy, wandering at will into the primitive.
Oh! By Jingo, Clancy Hayes (Delmark Records). "Traditional" jazz is generally thought to encompass most pre-bop conventions: Dixieland, swing, ragtime, and related forms. For anyone who thinks that Dixieland is pizza-parlor and amusement-park music, this record by the great banjo player Clancy Hayes should prove illuminating. The searing improvisation of modern jazz is there already, but based on songs that are older and bluesier. That fact that this music is so peppy doesn't mean that you shouldn't take it seriously, and Oh! By Jingo--recorded in 1964--is a good example of a frequently overlooked chapter in the development of American music.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and The Ballad of Easy Rider, The Byrds (Columbia Records). The stability of the band was so problematic and their decline so gradual that many today forget how much the current cutting edge in alt-country owes to the Byrds. They were one of the first to move from super-stardom to rural simplicity, and their exploration of their roots presaged not only the first cosmic cowboy revolution in the '70s, but the entire No Depression movement a generation later. These four albums--available for pocket change in cut-out bins across the country through the late '70s--are vital country-rock classics.