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Steve Holtje: March 19, 2006

  1. South Korea’s team in the World Baseball Classic
    Tthese guys have been amazing. Flawless defense, tough pitching, and an offense that doesn’t scare anyone yet still gets the job done. Shame on ESPN for editing some great games down and showing them horribly late at night—and not showing others at all—but what I’ve been able to watch has been great.
  2. Howe Gelb/’Sno Angel: Like You (Thrill Jockey)
    The longtime frontman of Giant Sand has had many side projects over the years. ‘Sno Angel may be his most ambitious yet: he records and tours with a gospel choir, Voices of Praise. Don’t worry, he’s not preaching, unless it’s the gospel of American Roots Music. There’s dirty guitar on here that could’ve come off a Junior Kimbrough album, drums from The Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara. Besides new material, Gelb has remade three old Giant Sand numbers and covered three songs by country songwriting legend Rainer Ptacek. But for all that, this is still easily identifiable as a Howe Gelb album—one of his best, in fact.
  3. Centro-Matic – Fort Recovery (Misra)
    The more I listen to this, the more I like it! Will Johnson’s band celebrates a decade with a superb new album mixing bittersweet down-home ballads that’ll put a tear in your beer (even if you can’t quite figure out the surreal lyrics) with crunching electric rockers Crazy Horse would be proud of. The rock extremism of the past has been mixed with the feeling of Johnson’s other project, South San Gabriel, for a more varied program that will appeal to Uncle Tupelo/Wilco fans.
  4. Film School – Film School (Beggars Banquet)
    See my review if you don’t already know how great I think this album is. What I want to mention this week is that the band had its van, with all its equipment, stolen recently and is now playing with rented/borrowed gear (reports are that they still sound great on tour). We’re collecting donations at Sound Fix to help them out; at the front counter, look for the box decorated with the cover art of this album.
  5. Tom Waits – Small Change (Asylum/Elektra)
    The archetypal album of Waits’s ‘70s period, on Small Change he’s joined by jazz greats Lew Tabackin (tenor sax), Jim Hughart (bass), and Shelly Manne (drums) plus a string section on occasion—all recorded direct to two-track, capturing Waits’ vibrant spontaneity on his 1976 collection of low-life portraits. Sometimes he just raps, as on the sardonic all-purpose sales pitch “Step Right Up” and the stripper tribute “Pasties & a G-String” (by the way, the redheaded stripper modeling those items on the classic album cover is Cassandra Peterson, who later acquired a black wig and equally black costume to become Elvira, Mistress of the Dark). “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” find laughs in alcoholic depression, and the title track looks unblinkingly at the city’s uncaring dark side, but the realistic love song “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work (and See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)” offers closing redemption.
  6. The Beatles – Help! (Parlophone/EMI)
    It may have been the soundtrack to a goofy comedy, but Help! (half non-film tracks, actually) found the band making the leap from great but somewhat inconsistent pop band to new levels of artistry and consistency. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” marking a new height of sensitivity in his writing, became the most-covered song in pop history. John Lennon’s title track, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Ticket to Ride,” etc. similarly found him elevating his craft to new peaks.
  7. Lou Reed – Live in Italy (RCA)
    We just got the two-LP version of this release in at Sound Fix. For some reason, RCA has never seemed to value this collection of September 1983 concert recordings with Reed’s tautest band, never officially releasing it in the U.S. although it’s been a favorite import during its intermittent periods of availability. Reed’s own snaky guitar playing mixes with the angular style of one of the great guitar heroes of the cogniscenti, the late Robert Quine, with the supple bass playing of Fernando Saunders and the slightly skewed drumming of Fred Maher provide a more interesting foundation than on Reed’s other albums. Mix that with an assortment of his best material from his hard-hitting, Quine-fueled early ‘80s comeback, a few Velvet Underground classics, and the glorious products of his eccentric ‘70s work, and you’ve got the best single-CD overview of a great career. This goes straight for the jugular and rattles the backbone as well.
  8. Magnetic Fields – i (Nonesuch)
    Stephin Merritt’s new album is severely disappointing. Quite a turnaround from this, his previous album and my favorite. It is, in a way, a concept album: All the song titles start with the leter “I,” and they’re programmed in alphabetical order. More importantly, after many Magnetic Fields albums on which Stephin Merritt played most of the instruments and leaned heavily on electronic instruments, I is full of acoustic instruments, especially strings; the intimacy of the Magnetic Fields remains, but now in a new flavor. The constants are Merritt’s deep, unstudied singing (although he expands his range into some effective falsetto at times) and his hilarious sense of humor and clever rhymes.
  9. Richard Pryor – ...And It’s Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992) (Warner Bros.)
    This nine-CD box set documents my second-favorite comedian (George Carlin will probably always remain #1 for me). It’s amazing that of the seven LPs that are the core of this collection, only one had previously been on CD. All are classic, because Pryor goes into character as well as any comedian, ever; no topics were ever off-limit for him, not even the multiple sclerosis that ended his career and eventually took his life; and underlying Pryor’s humor are serious issues. Besides a bonus disc of previously unreleased recordings from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, there’s a lengthy and highly personal audio interview.
  10. Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings (Columbia Legacy)
    Blues aficionados may nominate others, but to the mainstream, the iconic Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is the epitome of a Delta bluesman, with a wealth of familiar repertoire (thanks to plentiful covers by rock bands), sharper recorded sound than much of the competition, and romantic myths regarding the acquisition of his considerable instrumental skills and his early demise via poison. On record, he always played solo, and at its peak his masterful, complex guitar playing juggles a bass line on the low strings (incorporating boogie-woogie piano rhythms), chording, and bottleneck licks on the top strings, resulting in intricate polyrhythms. This Columbia Legacy set has all 29 of Johnson’s recorded songs along with 11 alternate takes. More than 60 years after it was recorded, Johnson’s legacy retains its strong emotional power and musical mastery. We have a used copy of this baby available at Sound Fix, although that state of affairs won’t last forever!

 

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