Despite a Nashville home and album cover pleas to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame there, Kurt Wagner's band Lambchop is more art collective than country group. As enamored with Memphis soul and Velvets-styled mood pop as with Patsy Cline's countrypolitan, the ever-growing outfit (now at 14 members) is a charming experiment in creating indie-rock chamber music. On What Another Man Spills, the band's fourth full-length, Lambchop proves even more engaging, dynamic, and skilled at combining its wide-ranging tastes into one introspective record. Even when the horn section is at its loudest and the drums are at their most insistent, the atmosphere is consistently claustrophobic, pleading, and hopelessly romantic. Which makes Lambchop a country band after all, though more in feel than actual sound.
Wagner's own moody ambitions are underscored by his continuing collaborations with like-minded dour souls. Athens-based beautiful loser Vic Chesnutt provides cover art and sleepy background vocals, a perfect complement for Wagner's own passive drawl. (Lambchop backs Chesnutt on his forthcoming record.) And as on the band's previous album Thriller, Lambchop once again solicits songs from East River Pipe's F.M. Cornog for two of the disc's most engaging moments: the (relatively) rollicking "King of Nothing Never," and the gorgeous dirge "Life #2," where the lush, lap steel-based arrangement tightly embraces the track's vocal misery. Wagner's own songwriting, often prone to an aimlessness that plagued 1995's How I Quit Smoking, has tightened as well. On the twangy and piercingly slow "The Saturday Option," he sighs that "heaven is a disaster," picking away at emotional scabs.
Slivers of sunshine appear in the form of two R&B covers: Lambchop gives Curtis Mayfield's Superfly track "Give Me Your Love" delicacy, reverence, sweet string trills, and antiseptic funk; Frederick Knight's "I've Been Lonely for So Long" gets a quirky but soulful mix of ringing marimbas, chiming guitars, and Wagner in high-pitched loverman vocal mode. The far-flung musical ideas are surprisingly cohesive, mainly because they all find a musical center in loss and disillusionment. If it's true that misery loves company, Wagner made the smart move in assembling the biggest band he could find.
-- Mark Athitakis
The Tony Rich Project
On "Ain't No Laughin'," the final track of Tony Rich's new album, the soulful balladeer implores, "Don't forget my chili." It's a sly reference to the opening lines of his highly regarded 1995 debut, Words, in which he orders a bowl of the stuff in a cafe. Rich is after more than a casual link between his recordings. He continues as the music kicks in: "Time to get into your mind/ Who knows what it really means/ Is it all about corn bread and collard greens." Rich is again raising the issue of whether it's OK to be middle class and black: Chili is certainly a commonplace dish, but it ain't soul food.
Words was a devotedly upscale recording. There were songs set in cafes and lyrics about walks along quiet rivers; one picture in the sleeve was of the singer reading a newspaper. In interviews Rich was outspoken about not using ghetto insignia to authenticate his blackness. A lot of people liked what he had to say, but not urban radio. Words boasted but one major hit, "Nobody Knows," which sold mostly due to support from new adult contemporary radio, which is becoming something of an avenue for MOR black misfits like Rich, Des'ree, and Kenny Lattimore.
Some argued that Rich sounded too much like his label head, Babyface, but they weren't listening very closely. Babyface was all longing and naked emotion. Rich favored restraint. Rather than the urgent pleading that might attend a relationship at its turning point, Rich's songs were hopeful but calm; they resembled the spirit of a second date, which followed a good first one. His confidence was one of his sexiest attributes.
Until now, that is. Birdseye is a short, thin recording that feels like a rush job. Rich's songs still owe more to Crosby, Stills, & Nash than to Wonder, Gaye, or Brown. But his restraint is gone. Now, he sounds a lot like Babyface drowning his listener in need. The album is poorly paced: The first five tunes are slow to midtempo ballads. His grooves are not deep enough nor is the mood sultry enough to make that work. Eric Clapton guests on three tracks, but his playing here is not distinctive. A little variety kicks in on the lightly funky "Cool Like That," and Rich offers a cute satire of Bob Dylan's intonation on "Ain't No Laughin'," but by then it's clear that the best thing about this 41-minute-long record is its brevity.
-- Martin Johnson
The Complete Blue Note Blue Mitchell Sessions (1963-67)
By 1958, when he was 28 years old, trumpeter Richard "Blue" Mitchell had already played R&B with saxophonist and bandleader Paul Williams, hornman Earl Bostic, and blues shouter and balladeer Chuck Willis. He had retreated to his hometown Miami, where Cannonball Adderley heard him and brought him back to New York City. Mitchell joined the Horace Silver Quintet that year and stayed for six more. Silver was hot: His catchy compositions, careful arrangements, and funky piano combined sophistication and gospel-blues fervor in a way that proved just right for the '60s.
Mitchell fit Silver like a glove. He had a ringing, clear tone, all the facility he needed, and a gently expansive lyricism that complemented the pianist's tightly patterned phrases. He sounded uncomplicated: He didn't play as fast as hard bop contemporary Clifford Brown, or as dirty as the young Lee Morgan. By 1964, when Silver broke up his quintet, Mitchell had already made his first record for Blue Note, Step Lightly, but it wasn't released at the time. Afterward, Mitchell became the co-leader of his own group with ex-Silverite Junior Cook.
The music he recorded around this time is collected on a new reissue from Mosaic Records. His first post-Silver work was The Thing to Do, on a session that also featured the young Chick Corea. The Complete Blue Note Blue Mitchell Sessions (1963-67) includes material from six LPs that feature Mitchell with young stars such as Joe Henderson, Harold Mabern, and Herbie Hancock. There are ballads, bop numbers like "Blue's Theme," and a series of funk-jazz numbers in which we see Mitchell, or producer Alfred Lion, searching for a hit to rival those of Silver or Morgan's "The Sidewinder." Although the sets included Jimmy Heath's "Bring It Home to Me," and "Gingerbread Boy," to say nothing of R&B's "Hi Heel Sneakers," Mitchell never hit the mother lode.
It's unclear why not. The suavely rocking Duke Pearson piece "Millie" has its own sound, helped by the heft of a slightly larger band, with its trombone and three saxophones. Mitchell's own "Fungii Mama," previously recorded with the Silver Quintet, has the bounce of a Sonny Rollins calypso. Mitchell begins his solo with a charming, short descending phrase, which he imitates. He plays a series of turns and then escapes into a longer phrase. It's as if he were trying to capture something of Silver's magic as well as Rollins'. The discs contain an early version of Henderson's "Mamacita," which has become something of a jazz standard, and of Corea's interesting "Tones for Joan's Bones." Perhaps the problem is that Mitchell was too obviously following in others' footsteps, whether those of Silver, Rollins, or organist Jimmy Smith (who did manage to have a hit with "Hi Heel Sneakers").
The heart of the Mitchell collection is the ballad-playing, as on "Cry Me a River," "Sweet and Lovely," and "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." He plays "Portrait of Jennie" unaffectedly, making rounded lyrical statements with minimal vibrato. Mitchell could play funky, and he never stopped looking for a hit: The latter part of his career was given over to pop-jazz. The great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet said about jazz: "That's a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle." On the best cuts of this collection, we hear Mitchell, a modest man who never felt the need to innovate, trusting the music, and treating it gentle. The results are delightful.
Mosaic Records' catalog is available through mail order only: 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CN 06902.
-- Michael Ullman
Zulu Death Mask
Supposing sometime ago ontological prankster Anton LaVey had dubbed his own deadpan cynical vocal delivery onto tapes lifted from a drunken Link Wray recording session. The result would sound curiously similar to Deadbolt. Amid reverbed guitars, tremolo bass, and sun-bleached malediction, the self-proclaimed voodoobilly quintet's rancorous San Diego surf sludge exists on a diet of B-movie terror and D-grade tequila.
Unlike the typically waiflike college student appearance of most of today's garage rockabilly revival bands, Deadbolt at their best look like lecherous Russ Meyer clones, and at their worst like slovenly bikers. In other words, these beefy curmudgeons, bedecked in sunglasses and leather, fit the part. The liner notes of Zulu Death Mask, Deadbolt's fourth, facetiously proclaim that the band has recently returned from two years of mercenary work in Africa, where they learned the tricks of the voodoo trade. For their sake, we'll dispense with conjecture and play along with the ruse. After all, that is the intent of Deadbolt's game: to reclaim the forgotten lore of diabolical humor while dabbling in campy ironies.
The ominous gravel-throated whispers of vocalist/guitarist Harley Davidson slither alongside R.A. MacLean's and 3rd Degree Burns' prowling double bass guitars and Les Vegas' surfbeat drums on the title cut. Davidson chuckles like an indefatigable professional wrestler, spinning the tale of their blood-soaked excursion through darkest Africa. Sparing no spite for easy targets, "Watongo" gleefully warns of a voodoo priest's avenging killing spree. "Watongo sees through his hand," Davidson mutters. "He sees that hippie begging on the street/ A smelly, dirty hippie/ He's on Haight Street/ One day he'll turn around/ Watongo will be there/ Holding a hippie's severed head by the hair."
"Creepy and Weird" buries a reverb-drenched guitar line inside a graveyard bongo and swinging drum rhythm as a spooked Davidson describes a zombie-raising experiment. On "Mogimbu," the singer invokes the name of a voodoo priest while Vegas' burlesque snare rim-shots snaggle with crashing cymbals and the dual bassists kick jackboot rumblings. Davidson's guitar erupts in crackling tones -- a hyena feasting upon fresh kill.
Just like LaVey's grimoire of B-movie humor and Wray's carefree guitar pluckery, Deadbolt invite listeners to suspend their self-absorbed seriousness and come along for a fearless stroll into the heart of darkness.
-- Dave Clifford