Robin Denselow listens to the digital and the eclectic
MIDSUMMER is normally the worst time of the year for album releases, with record companies holding back for the early autumn onslaught, but this time there's a welcome batch from some of America's perennials. All very different artists, with the common ability to move between rock and folk (or at least acoustic styles), they seem consistently to turn out good albums, regardless of trends around them, in that eclectic field for which there is no British equivalent.
Best of the lot, yet again, is Ry Cooder with "Bop Till You Drop" (Warner K56691). He was over here briefly for the Cambridge Folk Festival, will hopefully be back in the autumn, but in the meantime demonstrates his unmistakable, light, delightfully rhythmic guitar work on another set, consisting mostly of worked-over oldies. Cooder's aim throughout the seventies has been to look back over american popular music history, dress up old songs lovingly and wittily, and give them a contemporary sound thanks to that gentle, quietly brilliant guitar style. This time he uses a simple back-up trio of guitar, bass and drums, and a whole variety of back-up singers to complement his own slinky voice. The opening track is 'Little Sister' - though Elvis Presley would probably have never recognised it - and from there he takes off through blues, soul, and gospel.
The sound is particularly crisp and bright, even for a Cooder album, and this is apparently because he's used the new system of digital recording. Instead of sound being "modelled" into magnetism, it is "sampled" 50,000 times a second and the characteristics are numerically recorded. that's the explanation according to the back-sleeve notes, and the quality would seem to justify the claims that this is a recording breakthrough.
There's no such clarity on the second side of the new Neil Young album "Rust Never Sleeps" (Reprise K54105), which consists mostly of a thumping blitz of fuzzed-out guitars. Just what he's playing at here is not too obvious, for the two sides are totally different, and if you like one you probably won't be so keen on the other. Personally, I prefer the opening acoustic side, full of strong melodies, strummed guitar and wailing harmonica, with that whining voice in good form on songs that might verge on the inane if they weren't so tuneful. One of the more trivial, 'Hey Hey My My' is repeated on the second side hidden under layers of Crazy Horse guitar fuzz. But songs like 'Thrasher' and 'Sail Away' are well up to standard, if you actually like that nasal voice (I do).
The third perennial, and the boldest eclectic of them all, is Joni Mitchell, who at long last teeters right into the jazz world with "Mingus" (Asylum K53091). The concept seems to reek of pretension - just after the great man's death she releases an album consisting mostly of jointly composed pieces (his music, her words), dressed up with bursts of tape-recordings of Mingus at his birthday party or talking about his ideal funeral and her own not too wonderful paintings of him.
She's just a little out of her depth at times, and there's not the easy, adventurous confidence of, say, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns", but that said she makes a pretty impressive go of it. Her clear, acrobatic voice drifts pleasantly through songs like 'A Chair In The Sky', swings gently through 'Sweet Sucker Dance' (in which her gently sad lyrics particularly well fit the music) and swings even better through 'The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines'. Whatever else, success hasn't limited her musical sense of adventure.
America's best mainstream rock album of the month is Nils Lofgren's "Nils" (A and M AMLH 64756). As a rock balladeer he's been predictably, if unfairly, eclipsed by Springsteen, but he shows here that he's capable of quite a lot. The opening track 'No Mercy' is a typical tough ballad, but it's followed by a strong version of Randy Newman's 'Baltimore' and a Lofgren ballad, 'Shine Silently', that almost echoes Paul Simon.
From Britain, the best mainstream rock album of the month - surprisingly enough - is the Lew Lewis Reformer with "Save The Wail" (Stiff SEEZ 16). Surprising because though Lewis has some reputation as singer, songwriter and harmonica player, it didn't seem likely his band would turn out such an engaging, raunchy album. It's a good old-fashioned mixture of Rhythm and Blues and garage-band music, the sort of basic blend that the mid-sixties R and B bands like the Rolling Stones grew up with. The album is by no means dominated by harmonica solos, and the rough and ready style takes in anything from an old Little Walter number to Lewis's own 'Lucky Seven', already well known thanks to Dr. Feelgood.
Long John Baldry was once master of such a style, and after all his various excursions into more up-market pop, he attempts to return to basics with "Baldry's Back" (EMI AML 3002). There's a rather self-conscious spoken opening, followed by some moderate R and B and oldies ranging from Free to Phil Spector. It's not exactly bad, but the American production is a little too smoothe to give it the necessary bite.
On the reggae front, there's a new album from one of the most successful British bands, "Steel Pulse Tribute To The Martyrs" (Island ILPS 9568). Their first recording was disappointing because the songs seemed to copy Jamaican styles, particularly in the lyrics, rather than reflect the black British experience. This album is more adventurous musically, particularly with the use of keyboards, while songs like 'Jah Pickney' (about Rock Against Racism) and 'Biko's Kindred Lament' (on the death of Steve Biko) show them now tackling wider black issues.
It makes an interesting contrast to the new Third World album "The Story's Been Told" (Island ILPS 9569), which was recorded in Los Angeles. This is mostly smoothe, technically superb reggae with good harmony singing, strong playing, but edging towards the middle of the rasta road.