The Rural Route
In the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll, published last week, Smithsonian Folkways' Anthology of American Folk Music was voted the best reissue of the year. The six-CD collection of obscure rural recordings--sponsored by a museum, no less--beat out heavily publicized major-label tributes to such critical darlings as Lee "Scratch" Perry and Brian Wilson. But more impressive, as Robert Christgau points out in his introductory essay, the anthology pulled down more votes than the top single, Hanson's ubiquitous "MMMBop." This had only happened once before, when blues legend Robert Johnson outweighed Deee-Lite in 1990.
Critical acclaim, of course, doesn't always translate into sales. And having sold about 25,000 copies so far, the anthology is certainly no blockbuster. But for a collection that lists for $79, features almost no recognizable names, and gets no airplay, the sales figure is more than respectable. A better measure of the set's success may be the spate of similar treasures that various labels have seen fit to unearth in recent months.
Part of the appeal of the 1952 anthology was that its oddball curator, Harry Smith, drew no lines based on color or geography, instead emphasizing similarities between American folk musics. Now the Yazoo label, which in the past reissued the sort of early acoustic blues that makes up a large portion of the Smith anthology, has expanded its horizon to include old-time country with a pair of superb two-volume sets, The Rose Grew Round the Briar: Early American Rural Love Songs and Times Ain't Like They Used to Be: Early American Rural Music. Like Smith's antho-logy, both are assembled from commercially available recordings. To yet more work by artists like Uncle Dave Macon and Cannon's Jug Stompers, who made it onto Smith's collection, Yazoo adds equally worthy numbers by folks like Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles and Frank Jenkins & His Pilot Mountaineers.
Two of the most transfixing tunes on Smith's anthology are by western Virginia singer and banjo player Dock Boggs. Just a few weeks ago John Fahey's Revenant label released Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings, which covers everything Boggs did between 1927 and 1929. Lavishly packaged in a 64-page hardcover book, the reissue includes a dozen commercial tunes and five alternate takes, plus four cuts by Boggs's Kentucky contemporaries Bill and Hayes Shepherd. A lengthy essay by Greil Marcus, expanded from a section of his most recent book, Invisible Republic, paints Boggs as a man perpetually teetering between heaven and hell, good and evil, pleasure and pain. The most evocative line of the essay is its first: "Dock Boggs...sounded as if his bones were coming through his skin every time he opened his mouth."
The booklet for Roscoe Holcomb's The High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways) includes an equally perfect description: Carter Stanley of the legendary Stanley Brothers once said of Holcomb, "You could feel the smell of woodsmoke in that voice." Holcomb, who spent most of his life in Daisy, Kentucky, isn't included on Smith's anthology. He didn't record until 1959, when at age 48 he met folk revivalist John Cohen, and even if he'd started earlier, Smith wouldn't have included his records because they weren't commercially distributed. But none of these 21 cuts, made in 1961, 1964, and 1974, would have sounded out of place. Accompanying himself on banjo and occasionally guitar and harmonica, Holcomb sang blues and country tunes in the powerfully piercing voice Cohen says inspired him to coin the term "high lonesome," which has been applied to bluegrass music many times since. (When Holcomb rips into "Trouble in Mind," without even using a falsetto he sounds eerily like a woman.) More of Holcomb's work is available on Mountain Music of Kentucky, a two-CD set Smithsonian Folkways reissued in 1996.
Smithsonian Folkways will also release the 60s recordings of Dock Boggs in May, possibly as a two-CD set, and Revenant plans to release the early recordings of another banjoist on Smith's anthology, Buell Kazee.
All Things Albini
On Shellac at Action Park, the 1994 debut of Steve Albini's latest band, the guitarist and recording engineer further refined the lean, scrappy sound he developed in the 80s with Big Black and Rapeman. But on Shellac's long-awaited follow-up, Terraform (Touch and Go), it sounds like he's finally hit the wall. For the most part Albini, bassist Bob Weston, and drummer Todd Trainer perform perfect--and perfectly predictable--exercises in Albininess, including the old tension-and-release bit (the interminable opener, "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are") and the extreme dynamic shift ("Disgrace"). Two notable exceptions are "Canada" and "Rush Job," which rate with Shellac's best previous work, but ultimately listening to the record is like watching a great basketball player practice free throws.
On Walking Into Clarksdale (Atlantic)--recorded and mixed by Albini and due out in April--Jimmy Page and Robert Plant don't break new ground either, but they do dig up some musty old bones while trying to evoke the sound of Led Zeppelin. At its best, however, Zeppelin had the songs to match the sound.
Former Albini clients the Jesus Lizard have clearly moved forward with their latest work, the first with new drummer Jim Kimball. The indie label Jetset just released a five-song EP that includes four tunes produced last year by Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill. One of them, "Cold Water," is a teaser for the band's forthcoming Capitol album, Blue, also due in April, while another, "Valentine," is a strange Tortoise-like instrumental. The fifth track is Jim O'Rourke's remix of "Needles for Teeth," which the band recorded under John Cale. A version produced by Gill will be on Blue. Both the EP and Blue retain that unmistakable Jesus Lizard sound, but display an openness to experimentation in the occasional drum loop or foreboding ambient texture. The band sounds more vital than it has since 1994's Down.
Finally, both Albini and another client, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, will join the parade of semifamous Sunday-night DJs at Lounge Ax--Nielsen on March 15 and Albini on the 29th.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roscoe Holcomb photo by John Cohen/ Dock Boggs uncredited photo.