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Album Reviews
Monday, Oct. 27, 2008

Rock ’n’ Skiffle: Brit Beat Beginnings (Proper Box)

1954 was the year rock 'n' roll appeared on the U.S. horizon and Elvis Presley made his first recordings on the Sun label. The new music was entirely absent that year in Britain. If there had been a hazy view of it in the United Kingdom around the time, it would be when the Ted Heath Orchestra covered Bill Haley's "Crazy Man Crazy" in a limp version not unlike The Beatles in years to come, when the group limped through Little Richard and Buddy Holly songs. Skiffle was where it began in Britain. It could be called American folk music on speed and influenced many of the major bands that...
Books
Monday, Sept. 15, 2008

Weaving American songs

Erik Darling, who is best known for replacing Pete Seeger in the Weavers, died only a month ago. A virtuoso banjo and guitar player, Darling also founded and performed with two other leading folk groups, the Tarriers (with Alan Arkin, then just a little-known singer) and the Rooftop Singers. In 1956, the Tarriers had a hit with "Cindy, Oh Cindy." Keep in mind that all this was going on when rockabilly was evolving into rock 'n' roll. Even before founding these famous folk groups at the dawn of the 1950s, he formed the Folksay Trio. They recorded only four songs, but one was "Tom Dooley," which the Kingston Trio later nabbed for a hit during the Mighty Wind commercialization . . .
Album Reviews
Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

The Coral Sea (PASK)

In this two-disc album dedicated to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith (with My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields) provides a live rendering of Smith's 1996 book The Coral Sea. The deceased photographer took the cover shot on Smith's remarkable debut album, Horses, and was a source . . .
Books
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Singer to Be Reckoned With

Take out the amateur, needlessly placed poems by Tyehimba Jess in mawkish, embarrassing praise of Lead Belly and we have a perfect book. Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures (Steidl) is not merely a picture book at all, but is rife with brilliant essays and era-specific memorabilia that portray the complexity of the man who just might be America’s finest folksinger – because he sang anything and was no purist. Every song that came his way turned into his version and, in many instances, his copyright, from “Happy Birthday To You” (covered by the world) to “Good Night, Irene” (covered by Frank Sinatra and hundreds more).
Books
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Ginsberg’s search for enlightenment

In 1961 Allen Ginsberg, who proclaimed just about everything to be holy in his seminal poem “Howl,” left America for India. What he brought back would become essential to American counterculture. Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (Penguin) is exceptionally detailed regarding what happened and what did not. In the tradition of the Beats, if something did not happen, it still did. In Blue Hand, Baker found a rare path to biography, paying close attention to Ginsberg’s 15-month quest for enlightenment in India, using what might have been his own way of writing the book, had he done so. Blue Hand is a well-researched, elegant biography written in Ginsberg’s tradition of an open field of composition, where everything counts as long as it can be accounted for in one sitting and with no revision.
Books
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

(Broadway), by Suze Rotolo

It could be worse. At least Suze Rotolo is a likable writer. Near the end of her memoir we finally get the story behind the famous album cover of Rotolo walking alongside Bob Dylan for the folk singer’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. A Freewheelin’ Time could have revealed something about the folk-blues revival of the early 1960s and its most enduring artist, but instead spends most of its pages on Rotolo’s artwork (including baubles that hang from ladies’ boots, rejected by Bloomingdale’s at the time) and politics (hanging out in Cuba back in the day and treating Dylan as a fan treats Dylan). We have a charming but boring person on a record jacket writing a book as though she was part of the album’s music. Credit Rotolo for her voice . . .
Books
Monday, April 28, 2008

Missing out on the blues

Just 11 pages into In Search of the Blues (Basic Books), author Marybeth Hamilton comes right out and attempts to shatter accepted visions of Mississippi Delta blues purity. She desperately wants to play the iconoclast. “In fact,” she begins, “the Delta blues was not born in the bars and dance halls of Mississippi. That Robert Johnson and Charley Patton came to dominate blues history owes more to elusive mediators and shapers of taste.
Album Reviews
Monday, April 28, 2008

Guitar Moods (Bean Hoy Music)

On the second release in the New World Blues series, the only numbers that sag are those where Milwaukee guitarist Mike Starling drifts into trite elevator music (“Pot O’Gold”) or fake Gypsy stuff (“Jinni”). These are more than compensated for by the many standout moments, including the spare rasp of “Above the Clouds . . .
Album Reviews
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hounds Tooth

This recording doesn’t create a new sound, and for that we’re thankful—especially at a time when so much music goes to extremes for its own sake, but forgets about the basics. The debut by Milwaukee’s Hounds Tooth is an exciting recording with a sensibility that should be heeded by many bands trying to push the edge.

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