Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ceci N'est Pas Une Plaisanterie

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you -- the greatest album ever recorded!

Okay, I exagerrate, but A Brief History of the Blues is, in fact, pretty much the best single disc blues anthology ever made. Which, of course, was the idea. From the liner notes:
In 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 were launched from Earth to explore and leave our Solar System carrying messages from us to the unknown. Attached to each ship is a gold-coated record with "The Sounds of Earth", including 90 minutes of the world's greatest music. If given the opportunity to program a similar disc, which 21 songs would you play to an extraterrestrial being to explain what "The Blues" was/is? What a question. This was our assignment.

The "our" in the above refers to the album's exec producers, Tonio K, who I once referred to, accurately, as the funniest serious songwriter in America, and his longtime collaborator, Texas guitar whiz Charlie Sexton. Short version: The album, including Tonio's amusing and wise accompanying essay, is just about perfect, with tracks ranging from the absolutely unarguable -- the W.C. Handy/Bessie Smith/Louis Armstrong "St. Louis Blues" -- to an obscure but transcendent version of "Long Distance Call" from an album Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Little Walter did in 1967. Obviously, this is the kind of a project with built-in pitfalls --

The first thing that needs to be admitted when approaching a compilation like this one is the fact that no one will ever be satisfied with it. Everyone will immediately wonder why _______'s version of _________ wasn't included. How could it have been overlooked? Are we stupid? Are we crazy? We agree.

-- but Tonio and Sexton have pretty much dodged them. Even better, the two new cuts produced by Sexton -- Doyle Bramhall II and Erykah Badu's appropriately spooky version of Charlie Patton's "Oh Death" and Charlie Musselwhite and Jimmie Vaughan's sizzling "Bad Boy" -- are a great fit with the classic tracks by the likes of B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Howlin Wolf and Mississippi John Hurt.

Needless to say -- go over to the link and order it immediately.

Incidentally, calling the above the greatest album ever recorded is a bit of an in-joke. Some years ago, I reviewed Tonio's brilliant debut LP Life in the Foodchain (one of the splendidly twisted masterpieces of its decade) and called it exactly that; since then, I have made it a point to describe every album he's released with the same phrase (and I meant it each time, BTW). You can read that now infamous September 1979 review (from the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review) here

And if you've never heard the record -- in which case, what's your fricking problem? -- here's my second favorite track from it, the incomparable "Funky Western Civilization." To our knowledge, still the only rock song with a cameo vocal appearance by Joan of Arc.

Sounds good? You betcha, so while you're up go order it here. You -- and the late George Metesky -- will thank me.


Billy B said...

Swami - I didn't know you even liked the blues.

Great stuff on this one. I hadn't thought about tonio k. since you brought him up last.

I like the inclusion of some modern blues players like Musselwhite and Bramhall also. Reminds me of the Stones covers albums 'Paint it, Blue' and 'Exile on Blues Street' where the old and new players are featured.

Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Re: Tonio K's "Life in the Foodchain": Believe every word Simel's said!

Great choices on the blues compilation.


keith said...

No album before or since has made me become an instant devoted fan like Tonio's first album. So, I gotta ask, what's you're first favorite track?

steve simels said...



Which was going to be the standout track on a solo album I was going to make of cover versions of tunes about horrible relationships. It was going to be called "More Songs About Anger and Embittered Self-Pity."

Obviously, I had just gone through a very painful breakup....

Walt said...

I wish I were as mellow as for instance Jackson Brown.....

One of my favorite lines in all of rock and roll. Especially since J.B. makes my ears bleed.

I thought that there were only a dozen or two people who knew that this LP existed. It's good to find a few.

Anonymous said...

It was that selfsame 1979 review that leads me to post sporadic comments here, and I'd post more if blogger wouldn't tell me I don't exist. A highly memorable bit of magazine writing.

Anonymous said...

if anyone's keeping score, the now permanently anonymou (I'm afraid) is also the former l'atalante