By Joel Francis
Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957) Jazz bass legend Charles Mingus’ second album for the Atlantic label was also his second masterpiece in a row. There are only four songs on The Clown, but as with any Mingus release, they leave plenty to unpack. The Clown opens with a Mingus bass solo before the rest of the band joins in on “Haitian Fight Song.” Mingus described the song as a contemporary folk number, but it reminds me of Jimmy Smith’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the way the song starts simply before the horns swagger into the forefront. “Bee Cee” is a piano-driven blues number. Side two opens with “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Mingus’ tribute to Charlie Parker. You can hear different pieces of Parker’s melodies fly past in the song. Mingus revisited this song several times throughout his career. The title track concludes the album. Actor Jean Shepherd – who narrated and co-wrote the film A Christmas Story based on his life – tells the story of a clown who worked hard to please everyone but wasn’t appreciated until after his death. Mingus said the clown was meant to be a stand-in for jazz musicians. There’s a lot going on for an album that lasts a scant 28 minutes, but Mingus always rewards repeated listens.
Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church (1969) Former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles got an incredible assist on his second solo album from guitarist Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was expanding the Experience to incorporate the players that would become the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group that performed at Woodstock. Somewhere around this time, Miles was asked to join Hendrix’ new trio Band of Gypsys. Before that, however, Hendrix produced half the songs on Electric Church and played on several cuts as well. Putting aside the long shadow Hendrix casts over this album, Electric Church is a good slice of R&B. The horns on the first cut, “Miss Lady” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Stax release (and place Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar solo in a unique context). Hendrix’ fingerprints are also all over “69 Freedom Song.” The Memphis soul connection is made more explicit on Miles’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and a live version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up.” Side two kicks off with “Texas,” a slow blues number written with former Electric Flag bandmate Mike Bloomfield. There might not be enough guitar pyrotechnics to entice Hendrix fans to sit through the entire album. Likewise, fans of soul music might be put off by the acidic rock explorations. Somewhere between the two camps, however, Miles was able to carve out a nice little niche.
Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (1977) Van Morrison’s ninth album certainly lives up to the title. The gypsy soul that characterized early albums like Tupelo Honey and Moondance was coming to a close, but the jazzier, lengthier contemplations exemplified on Common One and Beautiful Vision had not yet arrived. Pianist Dr. John plays on every track here and co-produced the album, giving the songs his native New Orleans shuffle, particularly on the swampy opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World.” The single “Joyous Sound” shares a spirit and feel with “Domino.” Elsewhere, “Flamingos Fly” and “Heavy Connection” point to the jazzy, adult contemporary direction Morrison would later take on Avalon Sunset and Poetic Champions Compose in the late 1980s. The intro to “It Feels You Up” sounds like something from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but the song remained a concert staple for decades. Of most interest to this Cowtown boy is “The Eternal Kansas City.” A gospel choir carries the meat of the melody while Morrison namechecks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShan and other local luminaries. Incidentally, everyone Morrison honors in the verse was still alive at the time, except for saxmen Bird and Lester Young. Morrison must have liked “The Eternal Kansas City” enough to re-record it with Gregory Porter on his 2015 album Duets: Reworking the Catalog. A Period of Transition is far from essential, but dedicated Morrison fans will want this to see how he got from A to B.
Rare Earth – Get Ready (1969) The late 1960s were the time of meandering hard rock epics that encompass an entire album side, like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After transforming the landscape of pop music with their Motor City soul, Motown decided it wanted a slice of this acid rock pie as well. Get Ready contains five other songs, including covers of “Tobacco Road” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” in addition to the title song, but the 21-minute cut on the second side is clearly the selling point. These types of lengthy, meandering jams aren’t really my thing, but the live audience on the album is eating it up. I don’t think the band is saying anything with the album version that they don’t articulate on the two minute, 50 second single. Then again, I’ve never dropped acid or seen a show at the Fillmore. If you like drum solos or extended organ parts, this is for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with the Temptations.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (2017) The prolific Kurt Vile had been releasing laid-back, guitar-centric indie rock albums for nearly a decade when the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett dropped her debut album. Barnett has a knack for inserting little details into her lyrics that tie her songs together without appearing like she’s trying too hard. In other words, she and Vile shared a laconic approach to songwriting and guitar skills that outpace the songs each write. For their first album together, Barnett and Vile create a level of relaxed comfort where they are able to swap lines like “What time do you usually wake up?/Depends on what time I sleep” (on “Let It Go”) without coming across as lazy or phoning it in. At just nine songs and 45 minutes, Lotta Sea Lice knows not to overstay its welcome. Hopefully we’ll get another collaboration at some point down the road.
Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (2017) On their previous album, the Texas alt-country quartet turned their amps up and returned to their roots with the raw, profane Most Messed Up. The band appeared to be at a crossroads heading into Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album. While the production is slicker and the songwriting is less self-referential, the 97s are still fully committed to having as good a time tonight as possible and dodging the consequences of it tomorrow. Singer Rhett Miller acknowledges as much on “Bad Luck Charm,” the jig “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls, the lonesome “Turns Out I’m Trouble” and the bloody “Drinkin’ Song.” Elsewhere, the boys turn theology into a pickup line on “Jesus Loves You” (sample lyric: “He makes wine from water/but I just bought you a beer”), stare into the afterlife with the help of Brandi Carlyle on “Good With God,” and wax nostalgic on “Those Were the Days.” Ultimately, Graveyard Whistling isn’t as essential as Most Messed Up, but it is a very good album from a band with a great run.