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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1997 Pazz & Jop: The Year of No Next Big Thing

Because the 24th or 25th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the biggest-and-bestest ever, it tempted me to come out shilling for our big fat turnout and shiny new machines. Because the winner was in doubt well into the computerized tally, his margin of victory the smallest since…Blood on the Tracks? — no no no, Born in the U.S.A. — it beckoned the frustrated sportswriter in me. But I run this thing because I like being a rock critic. My boyish delight in the charts doesn’t do as much for my cardiovascular tone as my adult pleasure in the kid music I call rock and roll. And this year, its kiddie and grown-up quotients soared in parallel, with confusing consequences for the art-in-itself critics supposedly monitor.

If one generalization can apply, which it never can, try this: a terrible year for the rock “vanguard.” Yet though nobody this side of MTV would mistake a grizzled popcult booster like me for an avant-gardist, I wasn’t wild about the myriad shapes the tried-and-true assumed. An admirer of our winner, Bob Dylan’s darkly traditionalist Time Out of Mind, I nevertheless prefer Blood on the Tracks and seven or eight of its predecessors. I am underwhelmed by second-place Radiohead, an arena-rock band that could do with smaller gigs on its touring schedule and fewer on its hard drive, as well as most of the electronica-flecked hedgers and retro-fretting folkies-in-disguise waving guitars further down the list. Topping a platter of pop-’em-in-your-mouth singles, meanwhile, is a teenybopping bonbon said to be as addictive as “I Want You Back,” but though I’ll certainly take Hanson’s milk-fed cheer over Radiohead’s bulimic paranoia of convenience, I still like my chocolate bittersweet (and my symphonies not at all). Only in hip hop, saved from self-destruction by a song and dance man rather than the wizards of Shaolin, are the year’s old-fashioned pleasures big enough fun, and that’s ignoring a consumerism so corporate it inspires nostalgia for dookie gold.

If anything summed up rock’s foreshortened horizons, however, it was the twin pop events of the year, the more undeniable of which was the resurgent singles chart, where in 1996 a mere 34 voters (out of 236) made the Quad City DJ’s our winners. In 1997, as the electorate exploded to 441 (previous high: 308), the Middle American “MMMBop” attracted a much healthier 96 full-time fans, followed by the Brit-hits “Tubthumping” and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — the first time black artists have ever been shut out of the top three. But the renewed respectability of pop evanescence peaked with the Spice Girls. Grown from the DNA of En Vogue, Elastica, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they got a free ride from Alanis-haters turned Fionaphobes by making no attempt to conceal their inauthenticity, thus rendering it moot. Though I think “Wannabe” is a great record, I have my reservations about how eagerly pop intellectuals suck up this amusing pseudofeminist scam. The problem isn’t politics, even if their movie defines girl power as bearing a baby — a female baby with her dad on the lam. It’s that they’re not good enough. Since none of them (including my favorite, Baby) dazzles as a singer or comedienne, and since the run of their material is bland Eurovision crapola, their deepest pleasures are ipso facto convolutional: femme-friendly respite from feminist puritanism along with people-friendly respite from rockist puritanism. And if in the end they ain’t all that, well, what else you got?

The answer many critics embraced was an overwhelmingly male-defined imaginary world somehow untainted by political incorrectness. Declaring it a pop event may seem cheeky. But at its distribution level it enjoyed phenomenal exposure and spin control, and it was named by more Pazz & Joppers than “MMMBop” itself, only the second time a No. 1 reissue has outdrawn a No. 1 single (the first was Robert Johnson over Deee-Lite, 1990). Just as the Spice Girls address a pop present that assumes no pop future, asserting the significance of the trivial more fiercely and playfully than any academic culture vulture, Harry Smith’s dazzlingly repackaged Anthology of American Folk Music addresses a pop present that has longed for permanence since at least 1823, when the obscure Brit songwriting team of Henry M. Bishop and John Howard Payne penned the 19th century’s greatest hit, “Home Sweet Home.”

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I love the Anthology myself — it’s not all as transcendent as is hoped, but it keeps opening up. As everyone should know by now, the old songs it canonized in 1952 are hardly unbesmirched by commerce. They were recorded for sale to subcultural markets circa 1930, not unlike indie-rock today. Nor are they especially homey, or sweet. Selected by one of the signal bohemians of our era, they’re the opposite of parlor music, many of them surreal, dislocated, and/or violent tales of what this year’s winner summed up in the title of his 23rd-place 1993 album: a World Gone Wrong. And so, while inspiring the so-called folk revival, they also presaged rock and roll, which first revved up their social utility and then claimed their themes. In 1997, many rock and rollers — seeking formal solace in a world gone wrong and around too long to take techno-utopianism literally — felt a need to access their ingrained knowledge.

As it happened, Bob Dylan — who has now put 15 albums on our charts since Pazz & Jop began in 1974 or 1971, more even than Neil Young (14) or Prince (13) — had been on this trail all decade, certainly since his folk albums of 1992 and 1993. In 1997, he not only got it right but scored his greatest PR coup since he fell off that motorcycle. I don’t mean to belittle an illness we’re blessed he survived, but I’m convinced that Time Out of Mind is in no intrinsic way “about death.” Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated — even if “The end of time has just begun” reminds me all too acutely of how the minutes crawl when the love connection is broken. The mortality admirers hear in it is their own, mirrored in a vocal mask half sage and half codger, in the nakedness of the one-syllable words the artist affects and the weary music that backs them. The timelessness people hear in it, on the other hand, is what Dylan has long aimed for — simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received. In a year when the rock “vanguard,” in both its struggling electronica and barely breathing post-rock cough cough modes, vowed to break the bonds of lyrics and verse-chorus-verse, only callow ideologues could simply ignore Harry Smith’s and Bob Dylan’s arguments for history. And many felt the Spice Girls and Hanson were an evolutionary outcome of this history.

Of course, only naive zealots believed songs, singing, and the four-four were actually on their way out. But with Nirvanamania grinding into schlock as Britain’s acid house fissure spread in all directions, it did seem as if the infinite palette of computerized sound was about to work some permanent changes on the collective ear, not just of critics but of workaday consumers. And pollwise, at least, the failure of “electronica” stops with the term itself. Despite no-shows by Tricky and DJ Shadow, both certain to return in 1998, the Chemical Brothers plus Roni Size plus Prodigy plus Daft Punk add up to the largest number of techno artists ever to chart, with Björk and Portishead and Stereolab and Primal Scream and Radiohead down with the program. But while our 16 U.K. finishers (counting Björk and Stereolab but not full-time Frenchmen Daft Punk), the most since 1980 and the second most ever, include all of the above, they also include, in descending order of technophilia, U2, Cornershop, Spiritualized, the slackly electronica-associated Beth Orton, the Verve, Supergrass, Blur-not-53rd-place-Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian.

In short, as we should have known from Blur-versus-Oasis as well as common sense and casual observation, Britain’s techno revolution was, gee, less than total. Not only did it leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by a high-concept readymade, but it produced numerous partial converts and the usual complement of rebels, skeptics, and go-it-aloners, including guitar bands aplenty. So Brits took over a new-blood function that Pazz & Jop has long vouchsafed Amerindies. This year adds to a U.S. honor roll that includes X, R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sleater-Kinney two minor bands on major labels: Ryan Adams’s Whiskeytown, led by a dulcet young hook merchant with “left to pursue a solo career” embroidered on the seat of his jeans, and Doug Martsch’s much meatier Built To Spill, a stubbornly domestic project of no discernible commercial potential. And although the four U.S. quasifolkie chart debuts include tuneful if depressive Elliott Smith and expressive if depressive Richard Buckner, the other two are showbiz hopefuls: Fiona Apple, Lilith Fair’s answer to Alanis, and Ron Sexsmith, a thoughtful cutie-pie who wants to give Tim Hardin his shot at the brass ring.

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The real change, however, is that excepting genius-from-nowhere miniaturists Belle and Sebastian and in their peculiar way Blur, who elected to escape the shadow of Oasis and the Kinks by aping Pavement, the British newcomers don’t truck with Amerindie’s antistar niceties. They’ve been in the papers too long. Back when Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce was Spaceman 2 or the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft wandered lonely as a cloud or Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh thought music was just a hobby for him, they could pretend they were ordinary chaps who didn’t care how many records they sold. But these days they’ve all joined the pop race, where they seem no less at home than U2 or Radiohead — there’s little sense of strain in the ambitious sprawl all achieve. Where Amerindie’s musical commitments are conceived as means to counterculturalism, in Britain the children of acid house control the radical rhetoric. So no matter how stoned or alienated or hedonistic these guitar bands are, they respect rock tradition and accept a pop system they’re dedicated to beating. For them, vanguard is barely a concept anymore.

And the way our electorate heard the year, it wasn’t much of a concept stateside either. Among the fanzine rumors and local heroes who placed down to 120 or so last year, a feat requiring the support of some half dozen voting weirdos, were five newly anointed cult bands: Tortoise (post-rock hack-hack), Smog (dim solipsism), Cat Power (anti-chauvinist low-affect), the Lilys (amplified watercolors), and the Sun City Girls (postskronk imperialism). But my disdain isn’t the point — the point is that a few people who think critically about music credited their obscurantism. This year, although Ben Folds continued to pump out puddle-deep ironies as the putatively country-rock Geraldine Fibbers abstract-expressed themselves all over creation, the only newcomers with the slightest insurgent vibe were two sets of well-schooled L.A. popsters: star-crossed biz babies That Dog and up-and-coming self-promoters the Negro Problem. There were also below-40 repeaters both avant (Smog, Helium, Sea and Cake) and neoclassicist (Flaming Lips, Luna, Waco Brothers, Superchunk), as well as new solo artists (Jim White and Edith Frost the not-very-strangest, Ben Harper and Robbie Fulks most likely to succeed). But for the nonce the wellspring of out-there young American bands has dried to a trickle.

These disparities were so abrupt — not just the Amerindie falloff, but the 16 Brits, way up from five in 1996 and eight in 1995 — that I suspected some demographic anomaly. Since we’d not only computerized but greatly expanded and updated our rolls from dailies, weeklies, and magazines nationwide, we added 259 voters who hadn’t participated in 1996. (Note that every record with a mention, every critic’s ballot, and an extra comments file are posted at www.villagevoice.com.) It seemed conceivable that the new voters would gravitate toward major-label mailings and hence the U.K. But when we tallied up a minipoll of the 182 repeaters, the U.S.-U.K. distribution remained stable. The most meaningful differences involved hip hop, where — despite much improved representation from name writers at the hip hop mags, which now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the music press — we failed to attract the kind of second-string reviewers who in the alt world flock to Pazz & Jop. So in an even better poll the Notorious B.I.G. would have finished top 10 and the top 40 would have made room for Common, the thinking B-person’s cherce, and most likely Rakim, the elder statesman returned. Such other high hip hop also-rans as Timbaland and Magoo, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, the fast-spinning Return of the D.J., Vol. II, and New York turntablists X-Ecutioners might also have contended. (In the real world, 41-50 went: Octagon, Foo Fighters, Common, Arto Lindsay, Return of the D.J., Chumbawamba, Timbaland, Paul Simon, Mike Watt, Rakim.)

But otherwise our results compute. Redoubling our electorate certainly wouldn’t change the collective opinion of America’s rock critics in re the indie/alternative scene long identified as rock’s avant-garde, which is that it is at best in the doldrums — a finding I report with no outrage and little regret. What else could anyone have expected? Lo-fi to low-affect, abstinent to self-abusing, withdrawal has been the Alternian strategy since whenever the gatekeepers concluded that the wages of Nirvana was Smashing Pumpkins. That’s why Sleater-Kinney is such a miracle — loyal citizens of Alternia’s most Olympian stronghold, on Kill Rock Stars yet, they’re nonetheless possessed by the need to hammer out music that explodes its own boundaries and everyone else’s. But putting aside your favorite exception (I have mine), they’re alone. No Alternians remotely like them combine the guts and the talent to come down from the mountain or up from the basement. You think Smog or Cat Power want to be — hell, are willing to be — loved like Sleater-Kinney? Much less Oasis? They don’t even want to be loved like Pavement or Yo La Tengo.

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If there’s no point whining about this logical turn of events, there’s also no reason to worry it’s a life sentence. In pop, there are no life sentences; we’re lucky there are two-year bids. Within months, at least in theory, Courtney or Madonna could redefine the game, and so could someone we don’t know exists, someone of any race, gender, creed, or nation of origin. But let me put it this way — it won’t be Liz Phair, it won’t be Polly Jean Harvey, and barring miracles on top of miracles it won’t be Sleater-Kinney. Nor will it be Pavement or Yo La Tango, who peaked artistically with their 1997 albums and were rewarded with, wow, critical acclaim, as well as, holy moley, viable careers, neither guaranteed permanent — old masters now, they’ve already reached out with as much common touch as they’ll ever have at their command. I’ll reserve some stray hope for Cornershop, whose formally pop collection of sublimely simple multicultural jingles just poked its nose into Billboard’s album chart. But the dream of an alt nirvana where aesthetes take over rock and roll, which like most nirvanas always seemed a little dull anyway, has played itself out.

My own favorite albums of the year, easy, were by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, and — my heart’s prize, a fragile, lyrical, sly, beatwise, embarrassingly beautiful cross-cultural appropriation — Arto Lindsay. Bohos all, New Yorkers and Olympians, every one on an indie even if Matador’s sleeping with Capitol, and who was I trying to kid? Could I really argue that the average record buyer was crucially poorer for his or her indifference to these distinct and exquisite fellow spirits of mine? Well, maybe Sleater-Kinney, but not the others — they’re too specialized, too rarefied, even if Alternians regard them as gauchely obvious by now. And although except for Arto all these bands continue to command broad critical respect, the Brits who trailed and in the case of Radiohead led them represent, well, an alternative.

U2 have always put on too many airs to suit me, guvnor. Through studied hip and good intentions, through stylistic permutations that barely inflect their deliberate tempos, careful riffs, and tortured magniloquence, they epitomize a crucial strain of rock pretension — working-class strivers bent on proving they’re not common. Pseudoironic title aside, Pop was a disappointment bizwise, moving a paltry 1.3 million after Achtung Baby and Zooropa totaled over 7, and also pollwise, where it scraped in at 31 after the albums just named charted top 10. But these shortfalls are relative. Pop was also the 50th biggest album of 1997 — in the U.S., which is not U2’s major market — and outsold all but six Pazz & Jop finishers (Notorious, Badu, Prodigy, Wu-Tang, and Apple, plus 1996’s late-breaking Sublime). As for Pazz & Jop, I had hoped the wan, overworked, serious-as-taxes contraption wouldn’t chart at all. But eventually I figured why fight poetic justice. Except for Cornershop, all the U.K. guitar bands to crash our top 20 — the Verve, Spiritualized, and above all Radiohead — take their cues from U2.

It’s not as if grandiosity has been monopolized by the quondam British Isles in our poll — after all, one of the dozen things that made Nirvana great was the pretensions they fulfilled. But these bands are more seignorial about their angst than any Yanks of consequence except Smashing Pumpkins — strictly in U2 mold. In fact, I just thought of this, maybe that‘s the mold dumber-than-mashed Richard Ashcroft can’t break out of in “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as inane a single as ever has snared the voters’ ears — that symphony is just like life only catchier, you see, catchier than any damn U2 hit too, as is my own proud pleasure by this asinine band, “The Drugs Don’t Work.” Although Jason Pierce’s drugs worked so swimmingly for so long that some applaud him for discovering love L-O-V-E, Spiritualized retain more functioning cerebral tissue. They’re also the least U2-like of the three, superimposing the droning circle games of Spacemen 3 onto rock melodrama, and for all their ex-junkiedom are refreshingly short on the fatalism pawned off as wisdom by the Verve and depressive if impressive Radiohead.

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Admittedly, few crits lie down for Thom Yorke’s pained critiques of conformist humans and unmanageable machines. The band’s brains, they agree, are in its sonics, which achieve what U2 brags about — an electronically textured, augmented, and otherwise fucked-with guitar sound that occasionally even I find gripping, as on “Electioneering,” which has the shortest lyric on the album. But in addition to the words I take exception to Yorke, who is a better singer than Stephen Malkmus the way Mariah Carey is a better singer than Mary J. Blige. Good pipes are the refuge of fools, the kind of fools the critics mean to speak for if not be this year — better the broad gestures deployed by high-handed rockers, they’ve decided, than the straitened circumstances affected by lo-fi snobs. But though I accept the principle, I can’t get with the fact, and this is probably generational. The specious notion that punk was ’50s rock and roll revisited does contain a kernel — like punk, the music I grew up loving was fast, short, lively, and good for a laugh. The music many critics in their thirties grew up loving, however, wasn’t punk, not at first — it was AOR, which was slow, long, turgid, and somber. U2 made their mark on late AOR because they shared its penchant for the grand aural trademark, and to anyone weaned on AOR they and their progeny sound natural in a way they can’t to me. Maybe being old ain’t so bad after all.

Since Pazz & Jop often has predictive power, I’m warning you to watch out for the Verve, tuneful saps who in their escapist-murk phase were counted arty enough for Lollapalooza’s second stage; they will certainly outsell Radiohead as well as Spiritualized and may surpass U2. I only wish I could see how this will make the world a better place. For some reason, human beings need tunes — they order time, yoke beauty and logic, trigger the smile reflex, help you buy stuff, something. But tunes are also the refuge of fools. While classical folk believe they’re only worthy when “developed,” I ask merely that mine pack some extra charge. Whatever gets you high, but for me that didn’t happen to be “MMMBop,” an ebullient piece of product without the, I’m sorry, social vision of “Tubthumping,” which finally triggered my hum reflex the day after we voted, and would now be my No. 3 single.

Nos. 1 and 2 were nonfinishers — Puff Daddy Inc.’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and B-Rock & the Bizz’s “MyBabyDaddy,” both of which access ingrained knowledge too shamelessly to suit Pazz & Joppers. “Missing You” you know — the B.I.G. tribute is the r&b “Candle in the Wind” at over 3 million sales, and didn’t hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November. “MyBabyDaddy” sold 700,000 without approaching the same level of ubiquity, and I loved its nutty deep-South hook before I had any idea what the song was about, which — as in Spice World, of all things — is raising a baby (female, but that’s muffled and incidental) with its dad on the lam. Thus it transforms a supposed national tragedy into a wild joke, a fact of life, and a party-shaking Miami bass track. And although the sample isn’t the hook, which is all in Kittie Thomas’s “Ghetto Gul” drawl, it’s as dependent on the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” as “Missing You” is on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Well, big deal. Puffy’s sample is a recontextualization as humane as MC Hammer’s with “Super Freak” in 1990, when I voted for “U Can’t Touch This,” which also rescued a tune human beings can use from a mean-spirited blowhard (a feat attempted less warmly and boldly on John Waite’s 1984 “Missing You,” which jacks Sting’s cadence but not his exact notes). And though the main thing both producers want to do is amass bills in large amounts, a side effect is to connect kids who think “Rapper’s Delight” is a Redman song to a vast tradition every music lover should take pride in.

So with the Verve getting respect, I must second Carol Cooper’s “It’s Nation Time!” As you might expect in a year when singles rooled, 1997 gave up massive black pop. From turntablist magicianship to Puffy’s steals (which aren’t always that blatant, not unless you’re a bigger fan of Bill Conti and Eddie Holman than I am), from Timbaland’s Tidewater dub to the sonic overkill of the Wu (who can only benefit from the artistic competition), hip hop has survived gangsta without disrespecting its downpressed defiance. The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more “Tyrone”s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants, and I’m a total convert to down diva Mary J. Blige (85th) and very-round-the-way girl Missy Elliott. While such counterparts as Maxwell and D’Angelo have yet to produce a “Tyrone” of their own, the sheer quantity of male singing talent is enough to make a choir director try A&R. Janet Jackson gave better content than superstars with far deeper throats. And if I were to name a 1997 album with the reach and grab and surprise of true vanguard pop, I’d go along with Spin, which challenged its alt-identified readership by putting the Notorious B.I.G. on its year-end cover. Life After Death is poetic, brutal, realistic, catchy, and forward-looking, and I very much doubt Bob Dylan has ever heard it — although Thom Yorke is working on ripping it off right now.

Tolerance lectures get us no further than pleasure lectures, and I’m not delivering any. You want to hum “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” I can’t stop you — sometimes I can’t even stop myself. Until the rules are changed by Courtney or Missy or Tjinder or Ben Kweller or some now anonymous kid whose dad just lost his kurta in Jakarta, my special favorites in the pop race will probably flow out of the same ingrained African American tried-and-true I’ve been quaffing from since doowop and Fats Domino. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have any intention of abandoning a single tendril of the many-fingered eclecticism that put a record 78 albums on my A list this year. Art-in-itself doesn’t equal culture in the hungriest and most daring of times, and this is neither. But it can keep you going till the game changes. And if the game never changes, then it will just have to keep you going anyway.

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Top 10 Albums of 1997

1. Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind (Columbia)

2. Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol)

3. Cornershop: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

4. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

5. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador)

6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

7. Erykah Badu: Baduizm (Universal)

8. Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave)

9. Björk: Homogenic (Elektra)

10. Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Matador)

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Top 10 Singles of 1997

1. Hanson: “MMMBop” (Mercury)

2. Chumbawamba: “Tubthumping” (Republic/Universal)

3. The Verve: “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (Virgin)

4. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

5. Blur: “Song 2” (Virgin)

6. Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha” (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Block Rockin’ Beats” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Erykah Badu: “On and On” (Universal)
Smash Mouth: “Walkin’ on the Sun” (Interscope)

10. The Notorious B.I.G. (Featuring Puff Daddy and Mase): “Mo Money Mo Problems” (Bad Boy)

—From the February 24, 1998, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Ooh! My Soul

Little Richard’s hit-making days lasted about as long as the Verve’s and, though protean, he was no less derivative—a natural mimic who could filch Esquerita’s shtick one minute, Mahalia Jackson’s the next. But genius steals, and time waits for no man to rock around the clock, and once Richard had given up rock ‘n’ roll for solid rock, he found himself pushing Sisyphus’s boulder to get out from behind the eight ball of the British Invasion that praised him as it buried him. In his turn-of-the-’70s comeback, before Prince began penciling in John Waters’s mustache, Richard scraped Top 40 with some wonderful psychedelic soul.

The Okeh Sessions predates that by a few years and is mostly straightforward r&b. But as produced by Richard’s shady old labelmate Larry Williams—like Richard, a man not unacquainted with substituting infantile gibberish for the salacious—a 1001st “Land of a Thousand Dances” (which pinches Williams’s “Bony Maronie”) hits hard enough. Most telling track is “Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail)” and its series of warnings along the lines of “It’s a pretty poor actor that can’t read his own script.” True, but as another song puts it, “A Little Bit of Something (Beats a Whole Lot of Nothing).”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

All Duke’s Chillun Got Melody

At long last, Gerry Mulligan’s five Concert Jazz Band albums, recorded for Verve between 1960 and 1962, have been collected, though not by Verve. Mosaic (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, 203-327-7111, info@mosaicrecords.com) has done a consummate job with The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions. These much loved but long-unavailable records have never sounded better—even the muzzy Milan sides gleam. The integrity of the original LPs is preserved, with unreleased takes placed at the end of appropriate discs. From the first measures of Al Cohn’s arrangement of “Sweet and Low,” you know you are on enchanted ground, and the sense of discovery and triumph never subsides for long, partly because each album’s personality is distinct from the others’.

Mulligan became an overnight sensation with his piano-less quartet in the early 1950s, but big bands remained his first love and the CJB was his boldest attempt to initiate a venturesome orchestra—its very name warned dancers to go elsewhere. It was to be a workshop ensemble, an expanded version of the Miles Davis nonets (for which Mulligan had scored most of the music), allowing him and other writers to show what a full complement could do. His celebrity, plus the willingness of members to work cheap and Norman Granz’s deep pockets, made the undertaking possible. Another crucial component, as Bill Kirchner demonstrates in his illuminating notes, was the steady instigation of Bob Brookmeyer, the Mulligan quartet’s valve trombonist and ultimately the CJB’s most prolific arranger.

Eighteen months after the start-up, Granz sold Verve, dooming the project but for one last hurrah in late 1962, but the CJB’s influence was immediate and lasting. The first big band to play the Village Vanguard, it engendered what is now known as the Vanguard Orchestra, unleashing a tide of rehearsal or Monday-night bands. Its method of building orchestral constructs from combo outlines helped Mulligan retain a limber spontaneity; among the many bandleaders who elaborated on the idea were Charles Tolliver (see below), David Murray, and most recently Dave Holland. But Mulligan’s band had something no other band could rival—his stubborn, nostalgic, frequently inspired, occasionally cloying passion for melody.

Ironically, Mulligan was so preoccupied with the mechanics of bandleading that he wrote nothing for the project beyond an unreleased update of his Kenton classic “Young Blood” and a majestic “Come Rain or Come Shine,” recorded twice to feature Zoot Sims and, more successfully, himself. So in addition to Brookmeyer and Cohn, he enlisted Bill Holman, George Russell, Johnny Mandel, and a then unknown Gary McFarland. Mulligan and Brookmeyer were the primary soloists, spelled by Sims, Clark Terry, Gene Quill, Jim Hall, Willie Dennis, the forgotten tenor Jim Rieder, and the group’s unsung hero, trumpeter Don Ferrara, whose bursts of invention on “Out of This World,” “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” “Barbara’s Theme,” and “All About Rosie” place him in the Hasaan category of lost jazz noblemen.

A benign Olympian hovers over this material, and it isn’t Apollo. The blessings of Duke Ellington are everywhere; no other group of writers paid homage with more candor and creativity. The original notes to the CJB’s last LP specified Ellington’s impact on those pieces, but it was apparent from the first: symbolically in the first recorded number, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ ” (from Anatomy of a Murder), and wittily in the Ellington-meets-Clyde McCoy passages of “Sweet and Low.” Hats are tipped to Evans-Thornhill, Basie, Goodman, and Herman, while Russell’s “All About Rosie”—a superior update of the 1957 version—flies in its own orbit. Yet Ellington is invoked constantly, in voicings that include clarinet and in the interplay between soloists and ensemble.

There is so much to admire, not least the rhythm sections, especially the team of Mel Lewis and Bill Crow, which emphasize a relaxed capering that reflects Mulligan’s easeful swing. The contrast between Mulligan’s smoothly gruff lyricism and Brookmeyer’s gruffly smooth barking, hissing, chomping solos typifies the good humor that often rises to the top—as in anything by Cohn, notably the matchless double windup of “Lady Chatterley’s Mother,” or the last bar of Brookmeyer’s “You Took Advantage of Me” (a solo sigh that was played by the ensemble at a European concert released on European labels), or Mulligan’s whimsical “Emaline” intro to “Come Rain or Come Shine,” or his breakaway interpolation of “Blues in the Night” and Brookmeyer’s asthmatic entrance on “Sweet and Low,” or John Carisi’s orchestration of Miles Davis’s two choruses on “Israel,” to say nothing of Holman’s 6/8 arrangement of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” which turns it into a rocking counterpart of “All Blues.” The On Tour album qualifies as a de facto Zoot Sims concerto and a definition of mercurial wit.

Rumors of hours of unreleased material have proved untrue; the Vanguard tapes are apparently lost, and the 11 new alternates and otherwise unreleased items don’t add much, except for “Young Blood.” Mulligan would undoubtedly be relieved. This is desert island material, returned to life after more than two decades, in a limited pressing of 7,500 copies. Those should sell quickly enough; maybe then Verve (which now offers only the Vanguard set) will return this music to stores. Don’t wait.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Fetishizing the LP

Old recording artifacts die hard, their value increasing in ratio to the ethereality of their replacements. Last year boxes of Billie Holiday and Charley Patton mimicked 78 rpm albums. Many CDs replicate original LPs, in cardboard or paper-modified jewel boxes—among them series from Savoy, Sony, Impulse, and Verve. If memory serves, Verve was the first to offer miniaturization: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks remains one of the most delectable of reissues, a shrunken version of the original albums that seemed terribly witty in 1993. Since then Verve has offered amended versions of LPs in Master Edition and By Request lines—cardboard gatefolds with breakable plastic disc-holders and rejected takes. Now the label, which, thanks to recent mergers, owns Impulse, Decca, Mercury, A&M, Horizon, and other catalogs, returns to the Fitzgerald template for its LP Reproduction series. Unlike the Savoy editions, which included inserts with basic recording info, Verve offers inserted blowups of the original liners when they are deemed too small to read.

This reflects laziness, cheapness, or a zealousness worthy of counterfeiters, but not of typical jazz lovers, who like to know the identity of the musicians, composers, and arrangers; the years when the tracks were cut; and the order in which they are presented—information that ’50s producers, particularly Norman Granz, often failed to supply. Duplication does not extend to the disc itself, which reproduces the logo, though this would have been a handy place to include a track list with composer credits. Still, petite replicas offer a certain frisson to those who like inner and outer sleeves, cheesy graphics, an average playing time of 35 minutes, and a reprieve from repeated takes. Moreover, it gets neglected product back in catalog. Jazz discs must be moving so briskly that the industry can hardly keep up with the demand—hence an initial release of 20 LPs, with another 10 scheduled for August. The choices are très strange, reflecting neither consistent excellence nor commercial success, and running the gamut from Margaret Whiting to Alice Coltrane. A few groupings suggest themselves. Half are vocal or part-vocal.

Carmen McRae’s 1958 Birds of a Feather is a find: her last album for Decca, representing a transition from the sweet naïf to the edgy sophisticate she would become. It offers one of Decca’s howl-inducing covers—two bluebirds examining her décolletage—and a saturated sound mix that sends McRae even more over the top than she was inclined to go. A few tracks (“The Eagle and Me,” “Baltimore Oriole”) are distorted by echo chamber; here is an instance where remastering might have undone the damage, but at the cost of fidelity to 1958. For the same reason, there is no identification of “a tenorman,” though Ben Webster’s sound is an unmistakable calling card, and his participation amounts to a full-scale collaboration. (Al Cohn also appears, but as a section man.) Ralph Burns’s efficient charts employ four French horns on a few tracks, but generally leave McRae and Webster unfettered. She is radiant: her left-field entrance on “Skylark,” loose aggression on “Bob White,” brief scat on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” A choir and country-gospel chart by producer Milt Gabler on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” suggests unfulfilled plans for a single.

Rosemary Clooney’s Swing Around Rosie pretends to be a Coral recording (subsidiary of Decca), but actually consists of a dozen transcriptions from her radio show, backed by Buddy Cole’s organ quartet. Again, the audio was maxed to fire the old hi-fi. Though Clooney’s in hearty voice, Cole’s buoyantly cute, often corny charts don’t give her much room to maneuver. Her musicianship allows no intrusions on “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” and “This Can’t Be Love,” but her finest work of the period was on RCA. Anita O’Day’s 1960 Incomparable!, however, is her finest, or some of it, parsed in tight Bill Holman arrangements. She reveals an unusual glimmer of Billie Holiday’s influence on “It Could Happen to You,” and an appealingly raw edge to her top notes on a romping “Indian Summer.” But she is always her own sexy, risk-taking self—note the canny embellishments on “Old Devil Moon,” “Why Shouldn’t I,” and “Easy Living.” Her wordless “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” breaks the three-minute mold and shows her accurate pitch, but all those doo-doo-doos recall Clem Kadiddlehopper. The several uncredited soloists include Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, and Lou Levy, with Mel Lewis keeping time.

Margaret Whiting is by no definition a jazz singer, but like most good pop singers of her day, she had good time as well as a lovely vocal mask and exemplary intonation. Her Jerome Kern Song Book includes the verses and sustains an understated pulse. Only “D’Ye Love Me” is substandard Kern, and, among Russell Garcia’s arrangements, only “I’m Old Fashioned” sinks to novelty level, though Whiting ignores its faux baroque and works with the rhythm section. Her vibratoless whole notes are engaging on “Look for the Silver Lining,” and she confidently canters through “Dearly Beloved” and the more improbable “You Couldn’t Be Cuter.” Ella Fitzgerald’s Whisper Not (1966, her last Verve album) and Sarah Vaughan’s It’s a Man’s World (1967, her last Mercury) are often overlooked. The former has inventive golden-voiced ballads, notably “Thanks for the Memory,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and “Time After Time,” and the latter, despite oppressive strings, has many exceptional moments and one full-blooded masterpiece, “My Man,” in which every syllable is discretely inflected. Mel Torme’s Olé Tormé!, arranged by Billy May, shows Mel in toreador rig—it was that or a fruit-salad hat. The rock ‘n’ roll intro to “Malagueña” screams 1958, though most of the tunes are well chosen, and Torme is in prime voice—”Baia” especially—if you like his prime voice. For some reason, the selections are heard in different order than listed on the jacket.

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The Torme leads to a second division: three albums recorded in the ’60s, part of Verve’s good-neighbor policy. Astrud Gilberto’s The Shadow of Your Smile is whispery mood music, heavily arranged to exploit her “yearning innocence”—25 minutes’ worth. She is best with just guitar on a pleasing “Manha de Carnaval.” According to the The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, she has “an economy of melodic line and a steady momentum akin to that of Basie, but its rhythmic drive is often devoid of contours.” Got that? The title of Willie Bobo’s A New Dimension refers to his singing, which is nondescript, but his fixed dance rhythms pack a punch (Freddie Waits on traps), and so do his soloists. Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s Equinox is beyond the concerns, ken, and pale of this page.

As a bridge from bossa to boss instrumentals, Oscar Peterson’s Soul Español, a 1966 Limelight, is overly familiar but effective. Adding three percussionists to his trio (Sam Jones, Louis Hayes), he spins each piece with rolling, hustling minor thirds and tremolos, mining romance from “How Insensitive” and “Meditation,” and gusto from “Carioca” and “Mas Que Nada,” which swing too hard to resist. Stan Getz and the Cool Sounds implies that he’s playing with one of those ’50s lounge trios, but no, the title is generic, and so he balladeers with great rhythm sections (Lou Levy, Jimmy Rowles, Max Roach, a spot of Tony Fruscella’s trumpet) in peak form. Paul Desmond does his hat trick, entering with peculiar notes on “These Foolish Things” and “Star Dust,” on 1975: The Duets, but Dave Brubeck plods (he’s stronger without Desmond, on “Summer Song”), and the absence of a rhythm section is no help. Willow Weep for Me, the posthumous Wes Montgomery album for which Claus Ogerman overdubbed orchestrations, should never have seen the light of day. This reissue is mind-boggling, especially since the type is so small that unsuspecting consumers are likely only to note the quartet. Montgomery’s brilliant performances can be heard as intended, when he and Wynton Kelly recorded them live at the Half Note, on Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides. If you see Willow Weep for Me in a store, it is perfectly legal to stomp on it or set it afire.

I have little space for the two remaining categories: big band classics and kitsch. Don’t miss Woody Herman 1963, one of his all-time great ones, arranged almost entirely by members of the band, which helps explain the very cool choice of material—pieces by Horace Parlan, Horace Silver, Joe Newman, and Duke Ellington. The concerto for tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico, “Sister Sadie,” is a high, but there are no lows—Jake Hanna’s drumming is almost unbelievably on point throughout, and dig Woody’s klezmer sound on “It’s a Lonesome Old Town.” The hot spots on Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard are the Al Cohn charts on “Blueport” and “Lady Chatterly’s Mother,” and I hope this reissue won’t hinder Verve’s long-promised complete Concert Jazz Band. Count Basie’s King of Swing, from 1953 to ’54, is motored by drummer Gus Johnson, and features the leanest riffing machine in jazz, with rocking blues arrangements and superb solos; Frank Wess kills on Freddie Greene’s “Right On,” and goes toe-to-toe with Frank Foster on Neal Hefti’s “Two for the Blues.” Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro, from 1954, restores a major achievement that led to the rebirth of his orchestra. Chico O’Farrill’s title suite is a deconstruction of “Manteca”—first the piece itself, then elaborations on the bridge (“Contraste”), the key rhythmic figure (“Jungla”), and the vamps (“Rhumba-Finale”). Dizzy’s playing is blindingly radiant.

Kitsch: Stan Kenton, The Formative Years, which includes “Concerto for Doghouse” with vocal by Howard Rumsey, sounding disconcertingly like Tex Avery’s Droopy; and Alice Coltrane, Universal Consciousness, which isn’t as bad as it sounds if you’ve achieved nirvana or a reasonable state of inebriation.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Knight in White Spaghetti

Reviewers love harping on about how “soulful” Richard Ashcroft is; the ex-Verve frontman has been compared to everyone from Al Green to D’Angelo to (brace yourself) Isaac Hayes. Ashcroft himself has played up this angle for a while now, constantly chatting up the soul music he’s fond of, even having the gumption to call the second Verve album Northern Soul. But Ashcroft’s music, both in the Verve and on his new solo outing, Alone With Everybody, is essentially overwrought English folk-rock with prog leanings. Now and again, as on 1998’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (the MTV hit with the pretty violins and petty violence), it’s elevated to a sweeping romanticism that reeks of the Moody Blues at both their most wistful (“Tuesday Afternoon”) and their most overblown (“Nights in White Satin,” the bitter-sweetest pill I ever swallowed as a kid with my ear perched to the radio). There isn’t a whiter shade of paleface in the world of Brit-pop. First time I heard the guy, I swear I thought he was Bret Michaels or Steve Earle!

So “A Song for the Lovers,” the leadoff single from Alone With Everybody, is no minor miracle; it’s the first Ashcroft song you might call “fun”—or anyway, buoyant. Over a road-weary hotel-room lament, Ashcroft piles on one excess after another: Sergio Leone spaghetti-isms, Tijuana brass bits, feisty strings, a gloriously indulgent wah-wah pedal. Toward the end, he does some ad-libbing: “In the midnight hour/in the midnight hour.” He’s haunted by Wilson Pickett, but he rocks the cradle of love like Billy Idol.