Short Reviews

Mickey Baker,
The Wildest Guitar
(Sepia Tone).
Though a relative unknown these days, Baker was a top-call NYC session player throughout the 1950’s. He is perhaps best known for his jazz guitar method books, despite also being one half of the pop duo Mickey & Sylvia, who scored a 1956 hit with “Love is Strange.” Baker’s pedigree belies the abandon of this 1959 instrumental guitar record that veers from happy-go-lucky R ‘n B instrumentals (“Third Man Theme,” “Midnight Midnight”) to smoldering blues with ominous, pre-psychedelic overtones (”Lullaby of the Leaves”) to prescient (esp. for 1959) proto-surf freakouts (“Old Devil Moon”). Unlike other guitar virtuosos of the period, Baker attacks even jazz standards with a healthy degree of irreverence, never lets technical precision overshadow the song, and isn’t afraid to employ heaping doses of distortion and tape echo for atmospheric effect, or maybe just for the hell of it. This reissue confirms why Robert Quine and other connoisseurs of 50’s ephemera swear by Baker’s playing. Sadly, Baker pulled a Nina Simone and moved to France in the early ‘60s, after which his recorded output dropped significantly. However, with the reissue of The Wildest Guitar, Baker should finally get his due as one of early rock & roll’s premier guitar innovators.

Orville Couch,
Hello Trouble (Audium).
Nearly half a century ago, before the Dallas Sportatorium was known solely as a sort of Valhalla for devotees of minor-league wrestling, it was also the home of the Big D Jamboree. The Jamboree was Texas’ answer to the Grand Ole Opry, and they probably didn’t even have to remove the chicken wire between events. Regulars at the Jamboree knew Texas crooner Orville Couch well, though sadly few others do. This 1963 LP is solid if occasionally unremarkable honky-tonk that at its better moments goes toe to toe with Buck, Merle, George Jones et al. Standouts include the title track and a snappy cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man.”

Kenny Brown,
Stingray
(Fat Possum).
If the pictures on the album sleeve are any indication, longtime RL Burnside sideman and “adopted son” Brown is one hard-living gent. Here Brown conjures enough genuine ex-con badness to give the impression that he’s been placed on earth to carry out a singular goal: track down each and every current practitioner of lame white blues, put ‘em out of their misery, steal their cars, and take off with their girlfriends in tow. As Brown sums it up in the on the murder ballad “All I Want”: “I guess I just don’t like folks like I should.” Although Brown is known as a slide guitar ace, there’s not a single long-winded solo to be found here. Instead, Brown is content to ramble, workman-like, through a streamlined, compelling set of tunes, many of which are adaptations of traditional arrangements and Burnside covers. This disc is essential listening for anyone who needs convincing that the blues can be saved from the twin evils of pointless guitar wank and stylistic inbreeding. Added bonus: “If Down Was Up” is the best Stones song since “Start Me Up,” at least.

Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban,
Mambo Sinuendo
(Nonesuch).
The mainstream success of Cooder’s 1997 Buena Vista Social Club project may tempt some to draw comparisons to certain nameless high profile pop artists-turned cultural imperialists. But Cooder’s been crafting inspired multi-ethnic genre experiments since his Tex-Mex cum Hawaiian cum Delta blues excursions on 1976’s Chicken Skin Music, and on this record he continues to walk the walk. Here, Cooder and Cuban electric guitarist Galban team up to record radiant, occasionally spooky, (mostly) instrumental versions of Cuban pop songs from the 50’s and 60’s. The playing is remarkably understated given the level of musicianship, and Cooder’s otherworldly slide and steel work meshes nicely with Galban’s dense polyrhythmic single-note figures. The result is telepathic twin-guitar interplay of the first order, coming across at times like 1992-vintage Verlaine & Lloyd exiled in a banana republic. Highly recommended.

The American Song-Poem Anthology
(Bar/None).
What’s a Song-Poem? Well, once upon a time all you had to do was locate a popular magazine and you’d find a number of ads seeking submissions from fledgling songwriters with vague promises of fame and riches. The racket: plenty of credulous folks are willing to send in a poem, and then pay some polyester-clad geek a few hundred bucks in “seed money” to have their own “song-poem” hastily recorded by a bunch of struggling studio hacks in assembly-line fashion. The record company then forwards the poor sap a few acetates of the final product, accompanied by additional vague promises of promotional activities, riches, etc. And then, of course - nothing, save for the cashing of the check. Such artless methods would hardly seem to warrant their own (audible, at least) anthology. But somehow even almighty Mammon could not prevent the occasional genuinely insane entry from slipping through the cracks and eliciting inspired accompaniment from the studio chain gang, despite the best (worst?) intentions of all involved. Happily, this comp has sorted the chaff - and oh, what volumes of chaff there must have been - leaving a surprisingly listenable collection of odes to certain core American values. One gets: moral guidance re the sowing of one’s oats (“Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush?”); comical (perhaps unintentionally so) takes on Scott Walker/Jacques Brel-styled orchestral pop (“Breakdown of Human Absurdity”); helpful lessons on the redundancy of pornography (“All You Need Is a Fertile Mind”); Richard Nixon (“Richard Nixon”); Jimmy Carter (“Jimmy Carter Says Yes”); the lament of a “honcho wrangler” (“I Lost My Girl to an Argentinian Cowboy”); and of course, the immortal “Blind Man’s Penis,” proving once and for all that art shall triumph over commerce, once it pays its own ransom.

On Singing, Leeds, and Tater Tots
An Interview With Sally Timms
Mission: Ambition
On Southern Rock Opera and 69
Love Songs
Radical
Reinterpretation
of the Text

Unusual Cover Songs You’ve Probably Never Heard
Sifting Through
the Pebbles

A romp through the murk of one-single wonders
The Golden Age of Hip-Hop Is Now
“Everybody wants their own golden age. The problem is you never know it when you see it.”