"Just bring me the bitch who can do what I can do -- and do it all well," Dinah Washington once said. That's a typical quip from the legendary jazz vocalist -- vitriolic, but dead-on. More than 24 albums strong (she recorded 444 songs for Mercury alone), Washington's repertoire remains pretty much unchallenged three decades after her death.
Like Billie Holiday, Washington lived a tough life, but there's not a sign of it in the music of Blue Gardenia: Songs of Love. A new compilation of tracks recorded between 1954 and 1961, two years before Washington swallowed a lethal mix of alcohol and diet pills, this disc confirms that when it came to her art, she was no fool, contrary to any lyrics she sang about silly love. Washington would have approved of the CD cover: the infamous bridge from Madison County superimposed over her portrait.
The true blue cuts "I'll Close My Eyes," "Never Let Me Go," and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" are backed by famed soloists from the Quincy Jones Orchestra -- Lucky Thompson, Clark Terry, and Benny Golson, among others. The jazz side of Washington's soul really stretches out on "There Is No Greater Love," her milky yet ironic and worldly voice rising above the equally gorgeous trumpet streaks of Clifford Brown's and Max Roach's plush rhythms. On the title cut, Paul Quinichettes' sax notes mime Washington's scintillating syllables. Other choice cuts are "Unforgettable," "When I Fall in Love," "I'm a Fool to Want You," and "This Love of Mine," in which she imbues jazz with elements from gospel, blues, R&B, and bebop.
"Nobody ever asked me for any hair," Washington once argued when asked that she glamorize her simple 'do and image. Why bother? She knew it was her voice, not her looks, that truly mattered. And after one listen to Blue Gardenia, it's obvious that no one can conquer a song like Dinah Washington can.
-- Zoe Anglesey
Red Red Meat
Bunny Gets Paid
Last year, an SF Weekly writer dissed Chicago's Red Red Meat for being self-indulgent and unoriginal, for evoking many bands but sounding like none in particular. "A thin carpaccio of meat," he sniffed, "proves sufficient." Trouble is, of course, that the critic in question was I, and I'd kill for just about anything that would get the taste of my own foot out of my mouth.
Red Red Meat (not to be confused with locals Red Meat) are purveyors of "difficult" music, and the tertiary Bunny Gets Paid is the toughest yet: Many songs ("Idiot Son," "Variations on Nadia's Theme") don't actually start or end, but fall together like lovers, syncopate for a while, then drift apart. The vocals are buried, Tim Rutili's shy voice one element in a sonic wash that leans toward junkie country. Imagine Flaming Lips covering a Merle Haggard ballad. Even discernible snippets of lyric -- "pissed in the hibachi," "feel like sex and talk like 25" -- don't make much sense. Genuine stop-alongs like "Chain Chain Chain" or the slow-dancing "Oxtail" come along only occasionally.
But like a large mosaic made of a thousand tiny images, Red Red Meat's music comes into focus when you don't scrutinize it, a crucial difference I couldn't see last year. Take "Buttered," an impressionistic soliloquy built of Rutili's $10 guitar and hoarse voice: It's lovely, hollow, bittersweet. Throughout it, echoes of strings and synthesizer gust into the song like gathering wind, or the chills you feel in the weeks before winter comes. Though you can't hear its words, you arrive at the song's end feeling deep, unspoken loneliness and loss.
Take a step back and blur your eyes a bit; it took me almost two years to appreciate Red Red Meat and the palate should be satisfied far faster. Call it an acquired taste.
-- Colin Berry