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From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues

From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues (Capitol, 1996)


In the mid-90s, Capitol released a series of archival blues records. Most of them featured the heavy-hitters of the 60s blues revival (Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, etc) but a few took deep looks into specific scenes. There’s one about Kansas City artists, another about Texas guitar players. But probably the weirdest and coolest one is the look at Louisiana artists: Louisiana Swamp Blues.


Right from the cover you know you’re in for a treat: there’s no artist or even a generic picture of people playing. It’s an accordion, surrounded by a kind of bright aura, and an alligator with a big grin. It’s fitting: accordions dominate the music, which is swampy, damp and raucous. Oh man, is this stuff wild.


There are five artists focused on for this record: Guitar Slim, Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow, Boo Breeding, Clifton Chenier and Boo Zoo Chavis. The only name that’s especially familiar is probably Guitar Slim, who played hard, lived harder and died at 32. He’s best remembered now for experimenting with distorting his electric guitar and being an influence on guitarists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. But that came a little later: the stuff here is from early in his career and is relatively straight-ahead and bluesy. I like it, but the focus here is more on him as a performer (singing and playing), not just his guitar skills. Still, there are some cool stories in the liner notes, like how he’d use a huge guitar cord and play while walking around the club, even walking into the bathroom while playing.

The other name that’s maybe familiar is Clifton Chenier, whose long career playing zydeco lasted into the late 1980s. He’s represented here with several early singles, including “Louisiana Stomp” and “Country Bred,” both of which sound like they were recorded at a house party and certainly fueled some of them: Robert Pete’s drums crash, Morrie Chenier’s guitar chugs away in the background and Chenier’s accordion and hoarse shouting goes all over the place: it moans, groans and sounds downright gritty at times. On songs like “Rockin’ Hop,” he trades leads with the guitar; it’s an amazing mix of R&B, blues and Cajun and to my mind it’s way less sterile than later zydeco stuff you see now on Rounder. It’s brimming with energy in the same way early, lo-fi singles by Gary US Bonds still sound.

The other artists here aren’t as well known, I think (I’m hardly a zydeco expert, in case you haven’t noticed). Garlow, for example, was a guy who played a little guitar and used to get drunk and sit in with bands: in the liner notes, he explains getting his break after “the booze told me I could play as good as the guy up there, so I asked to sit in.” It’s worked pretty well.

The booze may not have worked as well for Boo Zoo Chavis. Both sides of a 1955 single of his close out the record. It’s, um, pretty wild. The band is kind of a mess, stumbling all over time changes and generally sounding like they’re not playing in the same room, and according to the liners, the sessions were also: during recording, the producer heard a crash; when he went in to check after the take finished, Chavis had fallen off a chair but kept playing while lying on the floor. Both sides of his single are the kind of thing I can’t imagine anyone releasing today, but they’re also charming in their own, raucous and dissonant way: it’s party music, played by some guys who were probably partying before they started recording. I kinda like it.


Lastly, there’s Boo Breeding, who is kind of a mystery in the liner notes: it’s alleged to be an alias of Chavis’, but they also discount the rumour; Allmusic, Wikipedia and other sites have no information on the guy. So his music has to speak for him: it’s 50s blues, alternately slow and brooding or quick and energetic. There’s some nice piano playing and singing, but it won’t convince the unconverted.


As a set, this record does a pretty decent job. I can’t say I’m an expert on this scene, so I don’t know if it does a good job distilling the highlights into a package or it’s it just a collection of loosely related sides who were all owned by Capitol records. In a way, it doesn’t matter: the music here is pretty good, even at it’s weakest, and at it’s best, it’s a compelling mix of energy, playing and fun. I’d definitely recommend it, particularly the sides by Chenier. The CD is out of print and can get a little expensive. 4.5/5



From the Shelf: Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3


Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3 (1991, Columbia/Legacy)

There’s a stock line about Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, his collection of leftovers, outtakes, alternate takes and other detritus. It’s that even his unused tracks, the stuff he didn’t think was good enough to be on his albums, is so good it’d be the best track on almost any other artist’s albums.


I really hate it when a cliché has this much truth.


For years, Dylan was one of the most-bootlegged artists out there. Indeed, he was the first rock artist to be bootlegged – for a longer history of this, check out my review of Clinton Heylin’s Great White Wonders – when a few of his scraps were compiled into Great White Wonder, the first bootleg LP.


And unlike most other artists, Dylan was hit hard with bootlegging because there was so much he wasn’t releasing. After a much-publicized motorcycle crash in 1966, Dylan took a break. He had just come off a world tour where he was constantly being hounded by the media, swarmed by fans and heckled, badgered and generally annoyed by everyone.


He needed a rest. So he encamped to Big Pink, a house up in upstate New York, where he recorded with his backing group (soon to be known as The Band) and spent time playing a little bit of everything and recording it all to tape. These recordings weren’t meant for the general public, though: they were industry recordings, demos for other artists to listen to and cover. This is what The Byrds did with You Ain’t Going Nowhere and The Band did with This Wheel’s on Fire. And when Dylan did finally release a new album in 1968, his new country sound was not only a departure from what he’d been building towards before, but also didn’t contain those tracks. It didn’t take a scholar to realize something was amiss.


Which is where those enterprising bootleg people came in: oftentimes they had connections to insiders and were privy to these demo recordings. Other times, they were completists who tracked down rare singles, mis-pressings and alternate versions. And sometimes they were devoted fans who tracked down other recordings, be it from rehearsals, informal jams or live shows where they could sneak tape machines past security guards.


And with Dylan, there was a lot out there for the devoted: besides The Basement Tapes, there were other recordings: him playing in a Minnesota hotel in 1961, live gigs from The Gaslight Café in New York and the never-issued Carnegie Hall live album. Even before tape trading was a thing, there was a lot of Dylan stuff floating around.


So it makes sense that he was so heavily bootlegged. And over the years, as he issued some material while leaving other stuff untouched, this only grew. Occasionally the demand for something was so great, he’d release a track or two from his archives, but even then it wasn’t the same thing people were usually looking for. He re-recorded some basement tape songs for the second greatest hits collection and Columbia released The Basement Tapes as a double LP in the mid 70s, albeit with overdubs and additional material by The Band. Later, he’d release a couple more rare songs on the compilation Biograph: the 45-only track Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, the Basement Tapes recording of Quinn the Eskimo.


But it wasn’t until 1991 that Dylan really raided the vaults. That year he released the first album in his Bootleg Series (the first three actually: each CD in the set is considered it’s own volume). Clocking in at 58 songs and nearly four hours, this CD set is a clearinghouse of his outtakes. And like the stock line, there’s some really good material here.


Most of this set is dedicated to his early years: 34 of these songs come from the pre-motorcycle accident period, with the majority of these coming from before he went electric. They show him evolving as an artist, going from someone who played protest songs and classic folk music to someone interpreting the blues and finding inspiration in his own life. On “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” Dylan is at his funniest and on “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” he recites one of his poems. Even before it gets to his electric material, this is an exhaustive look at his first creative burst.


Things kick up on second disc with an acoustic take of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is strange listening: the album version is iconic, the song that kicked off his electric period, and hearing it so stripped down is like seeing the frame behind a movie set. It’s easier to make out his lyrics, but it lacks the oomph of the electric version. You can hear him stumble on a chord change and his rapid delivery almost seems stumbling. It’s an interesting look at the construction of one of his most famous tunes.


And as it roars into outtakes from Highway 61 Revisited, there’s another behind-the-scenes look: the original piano-driven demo for “Like A Rolling Stone.” A few years ago, Rolling Stone called the Highway 61 version the best rock song of all time. And this version is night as day from the official version: as a demo it lacks the iconic organ riff, but it’s in 3/4-waltz time, a rearrangement that fundamentally shifts the song into something more cramped. Again, a fascinating look at how his songs grew and evolved during recording.


After a brief sojourn into the basement tapes and some album outtakes, the series focuses on the so-called New York sessions from Blood on the Tracks. The story goes like this: Dylan recorded the album in a stripped down fashion in New York and on the eve of the album’s release, changed his mind about the material, finding it too personal. A few songs were re-recorded in Minnesota and swapped into the delayed album. Normally, this would be something of interest to only the hardcore, but it happens that Blood on the Tracks is one of Dylan’s best albums.

The first track from these sessions is also the best on this set: an earlier version of “Tangled Up In Blue.” This version, barer than the official take, is longer, includes a few extra lines and indeed sounds more personal. Dylan once remarked that it took him “10 years to live and two to write,” this song and it’s not hard to what he meant here, singing about a broken relationship from an ever-changing perspective. The other tracks from the New York sessions included here – “Idiot Wind” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” ­– are also top notch, showing him at his best.


The third disc covers a lot of ground over a few tracks. It goes from Blood on the Tracks to 1989’s Oh Mercy a period of trouble for Dylan: he became a born-again Christian for a spell in the early 1980s, recording three Gospel-influenced albums. But 1983’s Infidels was a return to form for Dylan. As the liners to this set say, he hadn’t been this prolific with material for years and much of it was of high quality: the album included classics like “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You,” but the sessions were rich with material. There’s five outtakes included on this set, including the bluesy Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart.


But the best one, and a track good enough to have been the best cut on Infidels is “Blind Willie McTell,” a haunting blues number which has some of Dylan’s best singing ever, even as he says nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie could. It’s a shame this track only came out on this set: it’s easily one of his best songs.


That’s the irony of a set like this: these tracks are all essentially scrap material and most of it was never really considered for official release at the time. While some of these tracks are gems, some of the best stuff Dylan ever recorded (and he’s recorded a lot over the years) even these castoffs are still good listening: the demos and rough takes show his creative process, the outtakes how strong a songwriter he is and live material how good he is on-stage.


If you want an introduction to Dylan, there’s a few really good compilations out there (and the original albums don’t hurt either). But if you want an introduction to what makes people go out to swap meets, record fairs and listen to dubbed cassettes, The Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 is a great introduction.

Originally published July 7, 2012


From the Shelf: Broken Social Scene – Feel Good Lost

Broken Social Scene – Feel Good Lost (2001, Noise Factory / Arts & Crafts)

Back in the day, before there was an indie rock boom in Toronto – indeed, before there even was a thing called indie rock, really – there was Broken Social Scene. They’ve taken some flak over the years for everything they’ve become, spawned and influenced, but you gotta give it to Kevin Drew and Brandon Canning: the guys have stuck around and chased the muse for the better part of two decades now.


Anyway, back in the early part of the 2000s, there wasn’t really a Toronto scene for indie rock. I think. I was a lot younger then and truthfully didn’t start paying attention until a couple years later. But when Broken Social Scene released their first record, now-iconic Canadian acts like Stars, Fiest and Metric were still playing clubs and had yet to release full-length records.


It’s a world that, to be candid, I don’t remember this record coming out into or changing. At this point, Broken Social Scene was still a little ways away from becoming a generation-defining band, still kind of coming together and figuring out their approach. There wasn’t an Indie 88 or CBC Radio 3 back then to play this kind of music and I don’t remember any blogs or magazines championing this record; I didn’t hear of them until a couple of years later, when Much’s alt-rock show The Wedge started playing “Cause = Time” late at night.

At the same time, it makes this record interesting and compelling in ways later Broken Social Scene records aren’t. Here, mostly everything is instrumental. The music’s generally kind of slow-moving, meandering and exploratory. The duo of Drew and Canning occasionally work up some interesting riffs and passages, but it never sticks around long: the music is shifting, constantly moving around. This isn’t as formal as their next record – or any of their other records, really – would ever sound. Which is actually really cool, in retrospect: you can almost hear the band coming into it’s own, figuring out grooves and passages they’d build a reputation and scene on. But it isn’t quite there yet.


My favourite track here is “Love and Mathematics,” where the two play around a circular groove, anchored by some primo live drums. Guitars weave in and out, a bass guitar pushes the music forward and things swirl into a kaleidoscope of colour and sound, fuzz and distortion. I remember listening to this on repeat one time, using it to calm down from a panic attack.

There are other moments that have stuck with me since I first got this record well over a decade ago: the breathy vocal and slow drones of “Passport Radio”, the tricky guitar lines of “Alive in 85”, and the creaky, ancient-sounding guitar wobble of “Feel Good Lost,” which comes in sounding like an old 78 RPM record from another lifetime.


From here, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the explosive and still-exciting You Forgot It In People, a record that still gives me feelings and one I’ve made sure is always close at hand. There, the experimenting and jamming of Feel Good Lost has paid off: the songs are built around solid frames, additional players add tonal colours to the music and the lyrics added a sense of purpose to the band’s music. But you can still hear echoes of Feel Good Lost be it on instrumentals like “Pacific Theme” or “Shampoo Suicide,” the fractured alt-rock of “Cause = Time” or the hazy rock of ‘Stars and Sons.”


In one sense, Broken Social Scene never made another record quite Feel Good Lost, but in another, everything else can be traced back to it’s mix of fuzzy guitars, hazy post-rock and genuine sense of experimention. It’s not my favourite of theirs, but it’s one I pull out every now and then and I’m always glad I do.


Rating: 4/5




From the Shelf: Elvis Presley – Young Man With the Big Beat: Complete ’56 Masters

A while back, after reading Mystery Train for the first time, I went on a bit of an Elvis kick: I ended up with the Complete 50s Masters box, which is great and something I’ll get to another day, and have two discs of this box set on my hard drive.


As the title suggests, this box is everything Elvis recorded in 1956 and then some. There are two discs of studio stuff, basically a whole bunch of singles and stuff from his first record, then a live disc, a disc of raw outtakes and a disc of interviews for good measure. The first two CDs are nice, as far as I remember, but redundant since that’s all on the Complete 50s Masters (assuming you own that set, too, which I would recommend if you only want one Elvis box). The interviews are nice, I guess, although I truthfully don’t listen to them pretty much ever.


That said, the stuff on the other two discs is cool, fun listening. The live disc spreads across three different performances and shows him as an early peak: he’s not just creating rock as him and his band plays a raucous kind of country blues, but he’s having fun, teasing his audience with yelps and moans, and cracking jokes between songs: “we’ve been doing this song for about 25, 30 years,” he says before they launch into “Blue Suede Shoes.” I can almost see him smiling as they goof around during songs and when they crack inside jokes between them. It’s a side of him it’s easy to forget: before the excess, the movies and the pills, he was an electrical jolt on stage.

The sound on the live stuff is okay, I suppose. The Vegas stuff sounds pretty good and the material recorded at the Robinson Memorial has a rough, distorted edge to it, but it’s more than listenable – I think the guitar tone peaking and distorting as the band crashes and thrashes on stage, kind of adds a nice ambience to things. The stuff from the Hirsch Youth Center is more distant, muddy and drenched in crowd noise, but it’s comparable to a C, C+ audience tape. Which is a way of saying I’ve listened to worse sounding Grateful Dead tapes.


The disc of outtakes and studio sessions is also interesting. God knows how these things survived so long; so many other tapes of alternate takes and so forth were wiped and reused, even over a decade later. The most interesting part comes right in the middle, a session showing the evolution of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The performance doesn’t really change all that much between takes, although Scotty Moore’s guitar solo goes through a series of changes; he kills a take when he stumbles on take 8, for example.

Personally, I always find stuff like this interesting – the disc from the last Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, showing all the alternates of “Like A Rolling Stone” was also great – because it’s kind of like being there in the studio, or at least seeing the daily rushes at a movie shoot.


All in all, an interesting set. This was a big year in Elvis’ history (he signed to RCA, released his first record, appeared on TV and, you know, helped shape modern popular culture) and the set does an admirable job showing in detail: you hear Elvis as people heard him then: a voice coming out of a 45-RPM single, a man cutting a compelling figure on stage and, finally, as a consummate pro, slogging his way through the same song over a dozen times, each time bringing it.


Rating: 4.5/5


From the Shelf: Yokokimthurston – Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore

Yokokimthurston – Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore (Chimera., 2012)

A recurring feature where I pluck a record off my shelf and write about it, hoping eventually I’ll have a bank of writing for everything I own copies of!


It sounds like a fascinating meeting of the kinds on paper: Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono. All three have a rich history of making experimental, genre-pushing music, not to mention a distinct art sensibility. After all, before they turned to music, both Ono and Gordon were visual artists. The thing is, Yokokimthurston is an interesting listen and one that certainly pushes into the extremes, but it’s kind of a letdown at the same time.

Continue reading ‘From the Shelf: Yokokimthurston – Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore’


From Milner on Music for May 4, 2016

2.Radiohead – “Burn the Witch” (YouTube, May 3, 2016)
3.Radiohead – “There There” (from Hail to the Thief, Parlophone, 2003)

A new single from Radiohead means lots of takes and opinions from everyone, so I’ll spare you the thinking and speculating and focus on just this: a taught, nervous single which shows Radiohead moving away from electronics and back to the claustrophobic, nervous music of Hail to the Thief. My favourite records of theirs always came at times of strife and controversy: Hail as the lies over the Iraq war started piling up; “Burn the Witch” as Trump rolls through Indiana and the Panama Papers linger at the back of everyone’s minds.

Like Hail…, the big single has an animated video showing someone going into the backwoods and getting caught up in events they don’t really understand, being overwhelmed and trapped: a distinctly British kind of thing echoing all the way back to Shakespeare. On “There There,” Thom Yorke stumbled into a world he wasn’t supposed to know about, tried to enter into it and was destroyed. “Just cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there,” sang Thom Yorke about a decade ago; “Do not react… this is a low-flying panic attack,” he sings now.

The new video follows a notepad-wielding man visiting a small town, taking notes on a ledger and seeing a pagan festival slowly taking form: a woman’s tied up at the stake, there’s a decorated gallows; ultimately, there’s a giant burning wooden man and human sacrifice. It’d be a horror movie if the claymation wasn’t so cute (I’ve been told it’s a retelling of The Wicker Man, a movie I’m unfamiliar with). As his visit grows tenser and the protagonist is trapped, the music’s tension rises to a breaking point, the band’s playing growing quicker and tigher, a string section getting sharper and sharper and everything drops out. By song’s end, there’s a pile of ash, a singing bird and a pleasant dénouement, if one that undercuts the previous four minutes. And to think: there could be a whole album of this.

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Book Review: Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of CrowdsExtraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

A charmingly dated look at frauds, hoaxsters and other chicanery, Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, is an interesting, facinating read.

Originally written in the mid-19th century, Mackay was a Scottish writer who dabbled in poetry, journalism and even songs, but is primarily remembered these days for this massive look at the ways people get sucked into scams and hoaxes. His book covers a wide range of these, from money bubbles to witchcraft trials to even more casual scams: wood taken from Shakespeare’s desk or relics of popular saints.

Indeed, his stuff about money bubbles is what draws readers to this book: it’s gotten accolades from people like Michael Lewis and Will Self; on the cover, Andrew Tobias says the first 100 pages are “worth many times it’s purchase.” It’s not hard to see why: there are three contrasting stories about economic bubbles which rose quickly, made a few people wealthy and popped, leaving a lot of people without money. His story about the Tulip Mania in Holland is already well-known, but his chapters on the Mississippi Company and South Sea Company are worth reading. The schemes, where people keep building and lending on credit, thinking the money will keep pouring in and in, have ominous echoes for anyone who thinks about Silicon Valley and the subprime lending crisis.

That said, the rest of the book is wild, entertaining and occasionally shocking. A lengthy section of alchemists is like a shadow history of the rise of scammers in Europe: people who’d leech off of rich nobles who thought pewter could turn into gold. Likewise, the stuff on the assorted quacks and fraudsters engaged in what we’d now call New Age-adjacent stuff shows people haven’t really wisened up in almost 200 years (or perhaps that money talks).

Meanwhile, his section on the witch trials in Europe is shocking: his stories of grotesque torture, people being thrown into lakes to drown or burned alive at the stake are horrific. Thousands of people died because of superstition, maybe, but he acutely points out the often political or personal reasons behind such killings: it was almost impossible to defend from a charge like this and some people made a living at going from town to town, calling people a witch and killing them – usually with the state’s approval.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Mackay has a dry, dark sense of humour which often finds it’s way into even the darkest of it’s passages. For example, take this section on a witch trial, where an old woman was accused of giving a priest headaches through dark magic:

“One poor witch, who lay in the very jaws of death, confessed she knew too well the cause of the minister’s headache. The devil had sent her with a sledgehammer and a large nail to drive into the good man’s skull. She had hammered at it for some time, but the skull was so enormously thick, that she made no impression upon it. Every hand was held up in astonishment. The pious minister blessed God that his skull was so solid, and became renowned for his thick head all the days of his life.”

There are other nuggets, like when Sir Walter Raleigh was challenged to a duel and spat upon: “if I could as easily wipe from my conscience the stain of killing you, as I can this spittle from my face, you should not live another minute.” Ice cold.

Although I’m not sure everyone would like this book as much as I did – and to be fair, I did skim it here and there because it’s awful dry in places – but I think those who would like it will like it a lot.