Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Ballad of Tony Joe White

A quick post here to pass the time as it's been awhile since I lasted posted to WW&W. I was in Sacramento last weekend and picked up some great records, one of which was the last missing piece of my Tony Joe White collection, titled "Tony Joe" on Monument from 1970. This might just be my favorite album of his as he really stretches out in his swamp blues style and seems to be unconcerned with hitting the charts even though many of these songs are quite good.

I've been a fan of Tony's since I don't even know when and I can't really remember how I chanced upon him, but I soon acquired the great Warner Archives Best Of set which covers most of his late 60s and 70s output - his best years. I soon started tracking down his original albums and they're all pretty good, but few really stand out as solid listens all the way through, that is except for this one and his Warner Bros. debut, "Train I'm On."

I've also had my eye on Rhino Handmade's complete Monument Records set, but seeing as I have all the studio albums now, I'm not sure I want to shell out $80 for some out-takes and live cuts. I'm a fan, but not a super-fan. The thing about Tony Joe is that his style is so personal and direct that when it hits, it's like the best song you ever heard - think of his classics like "Polk Salad Annie", "Willie & Laura Mae Jones" or "Rainy Night in Georgia". Those songs were covered by just about everybody, because they were just THAT good. But, TJ also put out some embarrassing crap, too and in his personal style they just fall flat, really flat. He is kinda like a grittier Elvis (who covered Polk Salad Annie on some live sets) without the marketing machine to steer him towards success and make even his crappier songs sound at least passable.

That being said, I'm excited to share two of my favorite songs from this new acquisition (both songs are on the Best Of set) and they really show Tony Joe at the peak of his intimate and spellbinding storytelling style.

Tony Joe White - High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish
One of Tony Joe's great story songs. Looking at pictures of Tony as a young man, you could imagine him getting into some trouble with the ladies . . .

Tony Joe White - Stockholm Blues
This is my favorite non-hit that Tony Joe's done. I just love the opening bluesy lyric, "I got ants in my sugar bowl, boll weevils in my cornmeal . . ."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Arthur Russell in the Country

Arthur Russell's body of work continues to grow long after he left this world thanks to the good people at Audika Records. If known at all, Arthur's usually referred to in hushed tones by left-field disco enthusiasts for his David Mancuso Loft Party inspired jams such as "Go Bang" or "Is It All Over My Face" but his musical output was far broader than that excellent, but narrow slice of avant-pop. Arthur died of AIDS in 1992 and was creating music up until his final passing, but much of that output has yet to be heard by the public. Thanks to Audika records some of these recordings are being released and fans like me are eager to hear whatever comes out.

The latest release is "Love Is Overtaking Me" and collects recordings spanning his entire recording career from the early 1970s until 1991. What I like about this set of tunes is that they focus on more acoustic arrangements and the songs are shorter and more traditional in their pop song format with choruses and hooks, etc, but they are still distinctly different than most anything you'd ever hear on the Top 40 radio. Arthur's personality transcends any genre distinction and comes through in most everything he recorded.

These four songs are cherry-picked for their acoustic and country elements specifically for WW&W. They are also my favorites from this compilation, though there are many other great songs with more pop orientation and some synthesizers here and there. Listening to these tunes I can't help but compare Arthur's songwriting and vocal delivery to another fragile country boy who left us far too soon, Gram Parsons. The latter two songs also have a real country-soul feel with those horns much like some of Gram's cover tunes from the first Flying Burrito Brothers album.

Arthur Russell - Close My Eyes
Arthur Russell - Love Is Overtaking Me
Arthur Russell - I couldn't Say It To Your Face
Arthur Russell - Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart

If you are even vaguely moved by these songs or have heard of Arthur and wanna know more, I urge you to see the recent documentary, Wild Combination. It's a really touching tribute to this lost genius and an entertaining and compelling story. I particularly liked the parts with his heartland Iowa parents who still referred to him by his given name Charlie and who honestly admit they didn't care too much for his music while he was alive.