32 candles (and Quick Hits)

Stay Positive (2008), by the Hold Steady: In 1984, Hüsker Dü released Zen Arcade, showing the punks, No Wavers, and post-punks how the music and lyrics could grow up and expand their horizons. With Stay Positive, Craig Finn and company (also fellows of “the bright new Minneapolis”) basically bring the classic record into the new millennium. The album even opens with a song called “Constructive Summer,” a sly nod to the Hüskers’ “Celebrated Summer,” with a riff that’s so close to Bob Mould’s slash-and-scintillate approach that he’s probably owed royalties. Except for throwaway lines, Holly and Charlemagne and all of Finn’s regular protagonists are long gone; and when they do appear, even they seem disgusted by the characters who can’t move beyond adolescence and high-school nostalgia. As with all Hold Steady albums, the characters continue to get wasted, have empty sex and sloppy mornings-after, and nervous breakdowns. But they were teenagers and young adults before—now, they’re pushing 40 and things look grim. Actions have consequences beyond the next moment on Stay Positive: people end up in jail, or wasting away their twenties, and repeated refrains in several songs is that “I knew some kids who didn’t come back” and “I knew some kids who died.” Sonically, the band’s finally found a way to integrate the keyboards into the rock, horns add texture, Finn’s vocal delivery is better than ever before, and song structures get more complicated. Fueled by desperation, hurtled forward by fear, haunted by death, Stay Positive is a cry against the bleakness that, at long last, sounds like it’s coming from full-fledged adults. The closing three songs—merged onto a single track—essentially scolds arrested adolescents, but hilariously and poignantly. The Hold Steady loves its losers as they are but loves them too much to let them remain that way. A+

The Town and the City (2006), by Los Lobos: If Los Lobos has a weakness, it’s that it doesn’t have an inventive full-time drummer. Cougar Estrada has been a de facto band member for a decade but he’s just not as innovative nor as intricate as the guys around him. His flat beats can’t keep up with the ambient guitar textures, keyboard and sax washes, loping bass, and looped effects that swirl around this album. “The Road to Gila Bend” slashes and burns hard enough that Estrada’s parts could have been excised entirely. The stutter-step tempo of “The City” is held together by piano and guitar, not the drums. Only in the Mexican folk-themed songs—“Chuco’s Cumbia” and “Luna”—does Estrada show any flair. He’s solid but not inventive; he’s a mere timekeeper, and The Town and the City’s direct but haunting lyrics and melodic virtuosity need much more. David Hidalgo’s soulful voice and limpid delivery is as beguiling as ever. The songs are R&B masterpieces that have been hijacked by art-rock conventions. In other words, they’re spun gold. Or they would be, if the percussion was as propulsive and hip-swaying as they deserve. Actually, the music is so ethereal and Hidalgo’s voice so grounded that I wonder what this album would sound like without percussion at all. Probably spooky and wonderful, rather than the “almost great” that’s here. B+

Burnside on Burnside (2001), by R.L. Burnside: The north Mississippi hill country features blues that’s electric, with slurred and frayed slide guitar, mumbled and whiskey-befuddled lyrics that I can’t make out on the 15th listen, a willingness to experiment, and explosive drumwork. It’s closer to British punk than to the acoustic Delta blues 40 miles to the west. No wonder the kids like it. Case in point: this live set takes place at a club on Burnside Avenue, in Portland, Oregon. Burnside brings his son and nephew along for a scorched-earth ride through the territory. It’s the blues, so it’s all the same riff, but at least it’s a good riff. “Miss Maybelle,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “Long Haired Doney” ignite the room, and Burnside’s low moan keeps things sexy and scary in turns throughout the show. The beats are strong and driving. And he even gets off a good joke midset. B+

Hot Licks (1944-1946), by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm: A hard-swinging, all-women, multiracial big band from the Depression/post-WWII eras finally gets its due. Anna Mae Winburn led and conducted this explosive jazz combo for most of a decade, barnstorming into Armed Forces radio, the Apollo Theater, and dancehalls across America. Through brash, saucy renditions of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “One O’Clock Jump,” the girls prove themselves equals of the Swing Era’s better-known male orchestras. Winburn and company lacked the elegance of Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s bands, preferring to move in the musical direction of the high-voltage Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd. They succeeded, as these sixteen tracks show. I only wish the liner notes had paid as much attention to Winburn as her musicians did; the CD booklet adds little context, and misspells Winburn’s name to boot. A-

The Father of Delta Blues: Eugene Powell, alias Sonny Boy Nelson (1936): Since I’m taking on Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues for a book review, I’ve been trying, without much success, to get into country blues. (I’ve outlined my troubles with folk music before.) Nelson’s guitar lines, however, are more sophisticated and, when he sings, his voice is smoother and more relaxed than the vinyl crackle would suggest. Production values are problematic for this CD but that’s par for the course with transferring 78’s to digital means. These 19 songs, recorded on my birthday and the day after at New Orleans’ St. Charles Hotel, feature Nelson mostly as accompanist to Mississippi Matilda (shrill-voiced and haunting) and Robert Hill (throaty and too proud of his own voice). Nelson’s subtleties are perhaps too good for the two leads; at least he gets six songs to himself. Still, I miss drums, bass, melodic variety, structural intricacy, themes beyond trusty guns and untrustworthy women—you know, the lack that makes me shrug at the blues. Maybe it’s just me. B

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to 32 candles (and Quick Hits)

  1. Bingbango says:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more about Cougar Estrada. He provides power and textures behind the kit that has never been there. Listen to ‘Mas Y Mas’ from the 90’s and now, and you will here the tremendous difference

  2. Steve Pick says:

    Man, you are fast becoming one of my very favorite music writers. I may put up a new links post on our blog just to spread the word about what you’ve written here.
    I think you hit the nail on the head about Cougar Estrada and Los Lobos. Is Bingbango saying “Mas Y Mas” doesn’t rock hard enough? Because that’s one of my all-time fave cuts by those guys (who I’m too lazy to go see play at a local casino tonight, or perhaps it’s because I hate seeing a band play on a stage that’s ten feet high above the bar). And they used to use Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s drummer, all the time. I think it’s very likely the drumming that kept “The Town and the City” from living with me very long, though I knew the songs were terrific.

  3. Michael says:

    Walter, happy 32nd. Enjoyed the post — gonna have to check some of this out, particularly The Hold Steady.

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