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  Listen Up! 9/10/03 Listen Up!

Wednesday, Sept. 10

The Roches, “The Collected Works of the Roches,” Warner Bros./Rhino Records. The Roches remain among the greatest musical acts to not get enough respect. Oh, yes, they got critical raves when they first appeared, and they reached a low level of success, enough to draw a few hundred people to any concert in any city in the country. But, in my book, these women deserve to be thought of as among the finest songwriters and singers in the world. This collection should bring some new attention to their work. Picking five songs from their first album as a trio – Maggie and Terre had done a duo album a few years before – and four from their third, along with some nice cuts from the other albums, this makes for a spectacular introduction to the charms of the Roche sisters. Beginning with the proposition that nobody can harmonize like siblings do, the Roches decided there was no reason to limit that wonderful blending of voices to the standard close harmonies of pop music. So, complex chords and occasional counterpoint rule the day. Their best work featured the three women, an acoustic guitar or two, and some fantastic guitar balladry from none other than Robert Fripp, who produced their two best records. Away from Fripp, the Roches tried hard to find radio success, but were too far out in left field for even the more open-minded stations of the early 80s. (That said, my very favorite Roches song, or at least among the top five tied for first, is “Love Radiates Around,” which weds syn-drums and treated guitar to this elegant love song, written by someone named Mark Johnson of the Wild Alligators; if he had other songs this great, why have I never heard them?) Once the Roches left Warner Brothers for MCA, their melodic invention and spectacular wit seemed to smooth out a bit. They still came up with good songs – “Big Nuthin’” and “Ing,” both included here prove that – but they weren’t operating at peak skill. Buy this CD if you’ve never heard the Roches, and be prepared to be kicking yourself for missing out. You’ll need to get the first and third albums in their entirety, especially since “We” and “The Largest Elizabeth in the World” aren’t included here. You’ll also want their excellent Christmas album, “We Three Kings.” If, perchance, you already have all the Roches records, you might as well get this one because it makes for great car listening, and because it has a live version of “The Married Men” you can’t get anywhere else.

Steve James, “Fast Texas,” Burnside Records. I guess it’s somewhat praiseworthy that I assumed we might be listening to a Taj Mahal record I’d never heard, and that I thought it was better than usual. This is a guy who’s got a great blues record collection, and who plays mandolin and guitar very well. His singing is okay, expressive, but not quite impressive. There are worse acoustic blues revival artists in the world.

James Blood Ulmer, “No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions,” Hyena Records. Here we go, a second round of harmolodic jazz guitar disciple Ulmer applying his chops to slightly twisted but mostly normal blues. Ulmer has never been much of a singer, and the emphasis on vocals herein troubles me a bit. His guitar work is suitably unusual for these songs, many of which have been played a million times before. He did throw in a new take of his classic “Are You Glad to Be In America?” alongside new versions of “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Trouble In Mind,” but I didn’t even notice it while it was playing. That’s something I never thought I’d say about anything Ulmer ever did.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Country Style/Live,” Fantasy Records. Ohmygod! There are 25 cuts of this guy. Look, I appreciate him, I love most of the old folk songs he sang, and there are even moments when I can downright enjoy a couple songs at a time. But 25 of these in a row! Few people can put up with this and remain calm. I can do it. Serenity now!

Various Artists, “The Deepest Roots of American Music,” Biograph Records. I don’t know if this is a promotional sampler for this label, or an actual release. At any rate, it’s fun stuff, with the likes of George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Cole Porter, Skip James, Eubie Blake, and Jelly Roll Morton all represented. I would argue these are only some pretty damn deep roots of our nation’s musical history, as opposed to “the” deepest. But, why quibble? The sound of these 75+ year-old recordings is amazing.

--Steve Pick


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