The Freelance Mentalists.
Friday, April 04, 2008
  Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Boys? (Briefly Noted)
I'm more than pleasantly surprised by most of A Tribute To Blind Alfred Reed. I'd heard a few of his own tracks, like on Harry Smith's Smithsonian Anthology Of American Folk Music, and mainly remembered them as quaintly charming, in a preachy way. But the A-List Nashville cats (several of whom have played on Dylan's Nashville sets, as far back as Blonde On Blonde) and Public Radio/folkie-circuit mainstays start right out kidding the moralism, honestly commenting (rather than pretending to share his strictures), and really they're honoring the songs with that response, and also by bringing out , rather than injecting, the catchier, blues-rag-para-vaudville implications. Reed knew he had to compete with Jimmy Rodgers, after all, balancing between different audience factions' concerns with authenticity and pop (Ry Cooder's liner notes provide some background, and although Cooder himself doesn't play on this, Nat Reese's guitar grind, slip and grind on "Black And Blue Blues" reminds me of what young Ry brought to Captain Beefheart's blues, as the surreal, thump 'n' shift of the words' impact also preceeds Beefheart). Some artists do play the piety dead serious; most effective is Larry Groce's electric "You Must Unload," which what Slow Train Comin'-era Dylan was going for (this is more succinct: dropping that load is what you got a trapdoor for). Connie Smith and Marty Stuart keep the mountains and the tears rippling along too, Kathy Mattea does things with pills and sugar, and the Carpenter Ants bear it way—doesn't always work, but even the lesser stuff moves on eventually, as all things must (Oh yeah, and "The Telephone Girl" is an ancestor of Internet angels, and Ann Magnuson overdubs herself into a Lily Tomlinesque, deadpan-twangin' missionary chorus line on "Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls"—and like I said, Blind Alfred folded in whatever earthly entertainment value would get him and his message in the door—like some of my ancestors were a girl gospel quartet/acrobatics team, in that same time and space) (On Proper American, fittingly enough.) Another wayfaring homeboy, Ed Sanders, has recently 'llowed Collectors Choice Music to recycle Sanders' Truckstop and Beer Cans On The Moon. The first, from 1970, is usually described as hippie parodies of country folk, but Sanders was from Oklahoma (actually Missouri: thanx to commentor below) before the Lower East Side, and it's more the banana-peel ass-speck of all human existence that he celebrates and commiserates with here. "Jimmy Joe, The Hippybilly Boy" won't leave them hills of OK (MO, if they have hills) cuz he loves 'em, he's the peacenik side of Ed (goes back to save one drowning soul too many, gets his groovy long hair wrapped around the rear-view mirror) while the illin' Johnny Pissoff of "The Illiad" is a bloody-minded Ed that mighta been if he'd stayed in the sticks, isolated and righteous. Really it's about 1969/1970, the napalm and other smog that blurs roles, and leaves several horny wraiths waltzing through the crash pads and round the mountain, with "Banshee," "Breadtray Mountain," "Homesick Blues" and "They're Cutting My Coffin At The Sawmill" particulary worthy of the Holy Modal Rounders, others more like Working Man's Dead, though Deadpan Ed should have gone for more takes on some of the vocals (according to Richie Unterberger, who provides extensive notes, including quotes from unfavorable reviews, in the booklets of both CDs, Sanders' Truck Stop employs drummer/sometime pianist John Wade and bassist John London, both from Linda Ronstadt's band, when she'd left the Stone Ponys but was still promoting that hit version of Michael Nesmith's "Different Drum," and these same guys soon joined Nesmith's First National Band; plus, David Bromberg, Patrick Sky, Jay Unger, "and, on steel guitar and banjo, Bill Keith, who'd been in Bill Monroe's group and Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band, " but a pretty lean, flexible sound). Beer Cans On The Moon came out in 1972, and is more topical at times, but resists datedness with all sorts of little twists in the vocals, words, tunes, and arrangements (music is more varied, and includes a guy from Woody Herman's band, as well as Jake Jacobs, who had played on some Fugs tracks; his own band, Jake & The Family Jewels, released The Big Moose Calls His Baby Sweet Lorraine, with a sweet, croony cover of "When Will I Believed" which I was floating through 'til Cannonball Ronstadt's version blasted me towards taking refuge with Patti Smith and Television's early work. Just as well, it was time to wake up and move on, I guess? ).Meanwhile, back on Beer Cans, the split between idealism and satire is more apparent now, also its entanglement, esp. when Ed wishes everyone a "Six-pack of Sunshine" while beating his head against a wall (but also spouting some lovely lines), and sitting "in a geodesic honky-tonk"on the title track, right about the time the whole universe is turning into the poor side o' town. "Yodeling Robot" 's electric autoharp bounces like particles, while trad. country's keep-a-goin' formalism is honored by said robot, hopelessly but stoically in love with Dolly Parton, 'cos "I-yern eyes, can-not cry." "Henry Kissinger" sounds like the Irish alderman/slumlord on that album I reviewed in Voice last year, McNally's Row Of Flats. "Albion Craigs" is a funky almost-gospel-reggae setting for William Blake. It's all Ed, for sure (Not Pavoratti, not Dylan, and not the Fugs, but the kinda good when it's good that you can't get anywhere else, given the quantity and quality of country-punkoid Ed herein-- unless it's on for instance the countrier tracks on the Fugs' The Belle Of Avenue A, which I haven't heard). Don Allred

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