Allen Lowe, Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 (or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora) (Constant Sorrow)
Under consideration is whether the minstrel diaspora enriched more than it degraded our musical tributaries, a vexing issue Lowe’s been assessing for years while exiled in Maine. Coming from a white bohemian spouting “music heals” faux-naiveté or a mealy-mouthed academic dissecting vernacular poetry, it could all be so glib. Instead, a composer/performer uses 57 tracks and four discs to come to grips with what he calls “Ernest Hogan’s America”. If Lowe’s archival projects That Devilin’ Tune and Really The Blues offered shadow soundtracks to an ersatz America, 2011’s Blues And The Empirical Truth and now Mulatto Radio are through-composed commentaries - dixie stomps and circus blues, barrelhouse gospel and delta slime, emancipation rags and Haitian vacations, Bunk Johnson and Lennie Tristano. Read the liner notes for the in-jokes (“I Had Rhythm”; “Descent Into The Mailroom”), swipes at those adjudged gatekeepers (Wynton Marsalis) or hucksters (Robert Glasper), and admiration for heroes Blind Boone and Zora Neale Hurston. But study the performances to understand why the indignities suffered by Bert Williams in life and Paul Whiteman in the afterlife pain Lowe equally. The assembled players work wonders: pianist Lewis Porter and trumpeter Randy Sandke, Ray Suhy applying slide to banjo and wigging out on electric guitar, dearly departed Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre serving as AACM energy music ambassador, and the leader himself on an alto grown hoarse with the blues. Although isolating any moment seems a disservice given the all-encompassing canvas, I keep returning to “I’m An Old Regular Baptist,” in which white Appalachian hymnody rises to a witches and devils pitch courtesy of three-man horn army Ras Moshe/Kalaparusha/ Lowe. Like other performances here, it’s Lowe’s honest reckoning, the transubstantiation of charged rhetoric into chords and choruses. Long may he grumble and scrutinize.
Tom Rainey, Obliggato (Intakt Records)
I’ve admired Rainey since first discovering his clattering drumwork on Tim Berne’s splatterpunkjazz Science Friction, and while his old boss’s Screwgun/Thirsty Ear sessions still account for the bulk of Rainey’s output, he’s steadily accrued solo studio time over the past four years. Third time out, he surprises all by assembling a fearsome crew of Downtowners on knotty label Intakt for a traipse through the Great American Songbook, Brubeck and Monk included. But while Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Ingrid Laubrock (sax), and Kris Davis (piano) all play these storied tunes with more restraint than usual, the deconstruction is still radical. These are standards as gateway to cool impressionism, as witness Duke Ellington’s 1938 “Prelude To A Kiss” opening with rumbling drum solo before giving way to hushed tone poem, or the way Brubeck touchstone “In Your Own Sweet Way” is respectfully rendered nearly unrecognizable. Yet note how “Reflections” is palpably Monkian, filled with ambling good humor even while pared down to drums/bass/sax. Once in a while, the company even cooks, like the short takes on showtune “Bells Are Ringing” and Calamity Jane number “Secret Love,” the latter featuring an inspiringly sloppy two-horn melody statement. Change of the century, no. But how about the art of the improvisers?
Afghan Whigs, Do To The Beast (Sub Pop)
Even minus original member Rick McCollum, aka 90s alt’s only decent slide guitarist, this Cincinnati crew’s first studio release in sixteen years claims all the familiar Whig qualities. Hipgnosis-y cover art framing literal coke head. Greg Dulli’s Ass Man Of Darkness shtick. Cinematic aspirations aplenty, right down to “Algiers” and its ludicrous shot-by-shot music video remake of High Plains Drifter. Ashford/Simpson strings meshed with pedal steel, Shirley Jackson shout-out, seductions like “I've come to make you pay” and “easy, easy to forego” - could it be anybody else? If their misanthropic sprawl has always made you chuckle into your shirt sleeves, this won’t spark any reevaluations. If hooks matter far more to you than atmosphere, texture, and persona, ditto. But it’s possible to prefer the songcraft of far less grandiose types while still valuing a gang of boogie brothers who knew how to brood long before fellow ambient-gloom Ohioans The National were polishing their stage act. Perennially out-of-step and sleazy as ZZ Top on a bad-sex binge, they once again specialize in my kind of bombast.