Web Piercings, Take 021406

Designed for maximum impact without descending to popular but simplistic devices like mock grades.


Short & Sweet Department: What follows is an aggregation of capsule reviews of CDs that, for one reason or another, the print edition of PLAYBACK:stl couldn’t accommodate at any length and this column couldn’t analyze at greater length, each of them (hopefully) shiny and sharp, the verbal correlative of some new modern-primitive trinket, designed for maximum impact without descending to popular but simplistic devices like mock grades:

David Allan Coe: Penitentiary Blues (HackTone Records) The press release on Penitentiary Blues, the “long-lost debut” of David Allan Coe, causes mental klaxons to clang by calling him the “most controversial performer in country music history”; Coe himself has been mining such hyperbole for decades, and the vein long ago turned from gold to pyrite. That said, this August HackTone release comes as a major surprise. Certainly, it features the badass self-mythologizing so typical of Coe and his Haggardesque timbre, especially on the penultimate “Little David.” “Death Row,” moreover, exemplifies the Coe lyric technique with its razor-edged wordplay and (more or less literally) gallows humor. The surprise of this disc’s 11 tracks derives from the degree to which they embrace country blues over country per se. The electric guitar on “Cell #33” might sound like Bakersfield, but the guitar and phrasing of “Monkey David Wine,” the harmonica of “Oh Warden” and “Conjer Man,” and other aspects of other songs come from somewhere else entirely. Penitentiary Blues, in that respect, makes a fine (if somewhat sad) reminder that Coe, at the top of his game, has more than a talent for narcissistic bombast.

Flatt & Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Gospel (Columbia/Legacy) In a society wracked by tensions between the secular and the spiritual, Foggy Mountain Gospel may prove an exceptionally moving listening experience—for those who let themselves be moved. It combines two earlier releases from guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs, Songs of Glory from 1960 and When the Saints Go Marching In from ’66. To that classic bluegrass material, the Columbia/Legacy double disc adds another 30 tracks, some of them live renditions, some of them reprises, and two of them “not originally released,” bringing the total to 52 and making Foggy Mountain Gospel a Flatt & Scruggs bounty. The ebullience of Scruggs’ banjo shines here, of course, particularly on cuts like “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go” and “On the Rock Where Moses Stood.” Other highlights include the vocal harmonies on “I’m Working on a Road” and “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire.” Certain potential listeners, again, might balk at the content of this July release. That would be a shame, especially regarding a splendid track like “Building on Sand,” whose religious metaphor could be generalized by anyone with the insight to generalize.

Flatt & Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Jamboree (Columbia/Legacy) “Bluegrass Is Growing,” proclaimed a headline in Billboard last autumn, above an article on the arrival of younger bands and an infusion of younger fans. Such younger fans have a treat awaiting them in the form of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Jamboree, a July release from Columbia/Legacy. With three bonus tracks, the CD re-presents the seminal bluegrass duo’s first 12-inch LP, from 1957. (N.B. for Youngsters: LP meant “long-playing” when applied to musical releases in the pre-iPod days of the dinosaurs.) Of the original dozen cuts on Foggy Mountain Jamboree, eight constituted guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs’ first Columbia singles, issued between 1951—three years after they split with Bill Monroe—and 1955. After a tentatively picked note or two, “Flint Hill Special” opens the CD in gloriously locomotive fashion, with Scruggs’ banjo sounding as keen today as it did more than half a century past, with “Earl’s Breakdown” equally fine. On “Foggy Mountain Special,” meanwhile, Flatt’s guitar alternates with his partner’s instrument in a display of musical dazzle. Rarely has the past seemed so pleasantly present.

The Fleshtones: Beachhead (Yep Roc Records) “Bigger and Better” explodes from the speakers, and the take-no-prisoners tone of that opener generally presages what follows it on Beachhead, the Fleshtones’ thirteenth studio release since they formed in the latter half of the ’70s. In military slang, rock and roll means “automatic weapon fire,” and though they play with too much polish to conjure the jerry-built aesthetic of textbook punks, bassist Ken Fox, drummer Bill Milhizer, guitarist/vocalist Keith Streng, and keyboardist/vocalist Peter Zaremba approximate that ol’ blitzkrieg bop with the best of ’em. No one will ever mistake Beachhead for Spinoza, that is, but that in no wise denies its spinability. The August release from Yep Roc includes among its 11 tracks such memorable numbers as “Serious” with its sardonic lyric and psychedelic keyboards and “I Want the Answers” with its counterbalanced questions—a neat piece of pop craftsmanship—as well as the catchy “I Am What I Am.” Beachhead salutes the thirtieth anniversary of the New York quartet, whom no less than Chicago Sun-Times pop music pundit Jim DeRogatis once dubbed “the greatest garage band in history.” It does so ably.

Earl Scruggs: I Saw the Light With Some Help From My Friends (Columbia/Legacy) When it first appeared, I Saw the Light With Some Help From My Friends, Earl Scruggs’ fourth album, must have seemed a profound shift in the musical zeitgeist. Backed by his sons Gary (bass/vocals), Randy (guitar), and Steve (keyboards), the banjo virtuoso populated the 1972 release with songs atypical of bluegrass, ranging from the classic country of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” to the pop of Delaney Bramlett’s “Never Ending Song of Love.” Now, a July release of I Saw the Light by Columbia/Legacy provides some insight into an era of change. For someone expecting the Flatt & Scruggs standard, its 14 tracks (among them a trio of previously unreleased bonuses) may come as a shock, in fact. Scruggs generally subordinates his own instrument to the overall orchestration—fans of his banjo blitzes should steel themselves for a disappointment—and accompanying him are vocalists as unlikely as Arlo Guthrie (“The Banks of the Ohio”) and Linda Ronstadt (“Ring of Fire”). Still, the disc closes in style with Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”—a jubilantly cross-generational and cross-generic valedictory.

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